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Types of Tour People, Ranked From Best to Worst

In History, Jobs on May 11, 2012 at 9:52 am

Being a tour guide is sometimes fantastic, and sometimes miserable. Whether it’s transcendentally awesome or utterly terrible depends on the kind of group you get. Below are people I encounter regularly, ranked from best to worst.

People who are totally into it and are geeking out as much as you

I like history and architecture and urban planning and anecdotes and all of that kind of thing. When my enthusiasm is shared by others, it’s spectacular. I’m into it, they’re into it, and it makes me feel like some kind of grandly talented imparter of truth, like I’m Carl Sagan or something. It’s a great feeling, and usually results in lots of tips.

Drunk people who are totally into it and are geeking out as much as you

Same as above, but more distractable.

College students

College students are actually pretty easy to talk to, because lots of them want to be adults. They want to seem smart and interested in things, so they act smart and interested in things.

High schoolers

Same as above, for the most part.

People who know more about history than me

I’ve had a few actual, real historians on my tours. They terrify me. I worry that I’ll get something horribly wrong. But, they usually like to chat afterward, and then I steal material from the knowledge they impart.

Bored people who are only there because their spouse or friend or someone else dragged them along

These people are fine. They usually stare into the middle distance, thinking thoughts of things. They bother me not, but add nothing to the experience.

People who want to tell the entire group this one story about this one time when they were growing up in Portland and, wow, that had nothing to do with the matter at hand.

I like it when people have interesting things to say or add. I don’t really like it when someone starts talking about how back when they grew up, things sure were different. Yep. Totally not the same as today.

Small children

Small children are easily impressed by things such as magnets. Also, they are very short so addressing large groups of them is easy. One is gigantic by comparison, so they can all see and hear you easily. They do, however, have the tendency to tire easily. Sometimes they spontaneously cry, and must be whisked away by a parent.

Disinterested guys in NASCAR hats and sunglasses who always seem to be thinking “What the hell is this shit?”

I imagine these guys as being the kind of dudes who actually get excited when the History Channel does yet another thing about WWII, and gritting their teeth whenever I extol the virtues of public transportation.

People who come up with weird rationalizations for Japanese internment

Portland used to have a big Japanese neighborhood. We don’t anymore. It got enthusiastically erased. Now, the only thing we have is a memorial by the waterfront where a big immigrant district used to be. Most people find this terrifying and horrible and sad. Once, though, a rather terrible woman tried to tell everyone why it was a great idea. It only happened once, but still.

Drunk people who are not at all into it

These people are asked to leave. They ususally stumble into a bar or something. An drunk old lady who had too much makeup grabbed my ass once. That was weird.

Middle schoolers

I kind of think that between the ages of eleven and fifteen children should be hooked up to some kind of energy-gathering cybernetic thing that would allow us to use the collective hyperactivity of the nation’s middle schoolers as a source of clean, renewable power. Middle schoolers do not stop. They do not tire. They do not focus. They are made of superballs and pop rocks. They are energy incarnate. Nothing can hold their attention. Nothing. Talking to them is like screaming at a jet engine. After the heat death of the universe, they will still be yelling at something.

A Post Sort of About Mad Men, In Which I Probably Sound More Bitter Than I Should

In Jobs, Television, Writing on March 25, 2012 at 9:55 am

Mad Men returns today, and it’s ostensibly a show all about how the lifestyle of white, middle-class America of the mid 20th century was a crumbling facade built upon an unsustainable groundwork of deception, consumerism, patriarchy, and racism. It’s about the sixties not from the perspective of the revolutionaries, but from the perspective of those inside the balsa-wood fortress that is slowly and inevitably collapsing in upon itself due to its own contradictions. It’s supposed to be about that.

But let’s not kid ourselves, Mad Men is also a fantasy show. As much as it’s about the moral corruption and hollowness of the part of America that voted for Nixon, it’s also about wearing great suits, drinking a lot, and having all of the sex with everyone, all of the time. The show gets to have it both ways- it’s an utter condemnation of the ruling order of the 1960s, but it also thinks that its subjects look sort of cool.

This is not a new observation by any means, but when I watch Mad Men the biggest fantasy aspect of the show doesn’t come from the cool clothes, booze, revelry, or sex. The most appealing and fantastical aspect of the show, for me, is that Don Draper and company are creative professionals who can actually pay for shit.

Don Draper is paid quite a good deal of money to think things up and be clever. For his services he is given enough of a salary to have a house, a car, several suits, go out all of the time, fly to L.A. with regularity, and generally not feel any real kind of financial pressure. Sure, Sterling Cooper have to hustle get and keep clients, but it doesn’t seem like any of them every have to crack out the Top Ramen or worry about student loans.

I do fine- I have a day job and freelance, but my lifestyle is by no means middle class. Even though Mad Men is all about how the characters live in an unsustainable system, the lifestyles of the creative professionals it portrays greatly appeals to me. I pay my bills by entertaining tourists and writing blog posts and articles- not a bad deal, certainly, but not enough to, say, buy a car or a house.  As someone who fancies himself a mildly talented creative person, I would love to do what Don Draper does. I’m sure there’s far more to advertising that what’s portrayed in the show, but the idea of being able to have a pretty okay life at a creative job is, for me, the show’s biggest and most frustrating fantasy. If I do attempt to actually live as a professional journalist or writer (which I suppose I am doing right now) I know that in all probability I’ll never do well. I’ll never be able to own a new car or buy an iPad the day it’s released. I’ll probably never own my own home or be able to fly about the country at will. I’ll most likely never be able to party in an expensive city in New York or own lots of nice suits. Actual, real creative professionals are not rich, or even middle class. They enjoy themselves, they live nice, fulfilled lives, but they are certainly not Don Draper.

Is it worth it? Maybe. Probably. American opulence is nothing to celebrate. Watching Mad Men, though, really makes me wish that decently-paying writing and creative jobs like the one Don Draper has were actually real.

What I Think of Occupy Wall Street

In Jobs, Politics on November 4, 2011 at 11:47 am

I have started and stopped this post several times. Unlike having opinions about holidays or science fiction movies, articulating my opinions about Occupy Wall Street have been far more difficult.

As I’ve gotten older, my political passion has cooled greatly, and for the most part I’ve regarded that as a mark of maturity. When I think about what it means to be mature and rational, I’ve oftentimes equated that with having a certain lack of passion. This is a common thing. It is generally cool, after all, to be above it all, or at least seem as such.

Also, I’ve become increasingly more hesitant to categorize myself politically. While I do self-identify as a liberal, I recognize that as an extremely broad category with multiple and oftentimes contradictory definitions. I liked this, as I generally distrust idealism of any sort, and I generally don’t believe in aligning myself with a philosophy that could be outlined as a set of principles. For the most part I’ve envisioned my politics as enlightened rational but also passionless and distant. More than once I’ve thought that I would support a regime of benevolent, technocratic philosopher-kings who make dispassionate decisions based on rational analysis of data. I will admit that I would also probably support a regime of well-meaning computer overlords.

When I went to the original Occupy Portland march on October sixth, I thought of myself as mostly an observer satisfying my curiosity. I did not have a sign or anything to say, and envisioned myself being there mainly to take pictures and then come home and write about it. I was amused to see that there was a crazy-quilt of political ideologies at play: There were anarchists, people there who were opposed to the very existence of the Federal Reserve, and a guy who brandished a sign that said Al QAEDA IS CIA. They were exactly the sort of people that turn me off to any kind of political activism- loud, irrational, and unwilling to engage in any sort of debate because their conclusions must adhere to their pre-existing ideologies.

While I was the event, though, it became increasingly apparent that the lunatic fringe was precisely that- the fringe. The gathering was not one of crazed ideologues at all, nor was it completely dominated by a single demographic. I was surprised at the amount of older people, union members, and clean-cut folks I saw. I know this sounds superficial, but I was immensely happy to see folks who were not black-clad anarchy wackos.

Public events like this have two big things that they can do- the first is that they can galvanize the base, and inflame the passions of those who agree with the basic message of the event, and get them mobilized. The other thing that they can do, though, is change the broader political conversation and persuade people who have differing opinions or no opinions about a given issue.

In this regard, Occupy Wall Street (and Occupy Portland) has done both of those things remarkably well, and as a movement it has earned my respect and support. Starting with October sixth, I personally have been increasingly less jaded, less hopeless, and less removed from American politics and economics. The whole event did remind me that yes, I do have a sense of justice, yes, the financial industry has been hugely irresponsible, and yes, economic inequality is absolutely appalling. Not only did the Occupy movement remind me that I dearly believe these things, but that I should be angry about them. I am very much part of that core liberal demographic that popular demonstrations can awaken and galvanize. I was complacent, now I’m not. I was resigned to the right setting the agenda, now I know that does not have to be the case. I felt like things were unchangeable, now I know that’s not true. I am the galvanized base.

Which brings me to the second point- the Occupy movement has successfully gotten a good amount of people, media outlets, and politicians talking about issues of inequity and injustice. Prior to this there was mainly a lot of unproductive ideological talk about debt and deficits that wasn’t really about debts or deficits. The economic well-being of ordinary Americans was not really being discussed at all. Now, attention is not only on the problems of the middle and lower classes, but also the financial institutions who helped create them.

I’m hopeful. That’s hard for me to admit because it seems like such an idealistic thing to say or think (I can’t stand idealism) and it seems like such an immature feeling to have. Hope and hysteria seem to be twin poles irrationality. Nevertheless, though, I’m hopeful that the conversation really will change, that America can become more equal, and that problems are not intrinsic or entrenched, and we really can fix them.

There’s a lot of dumb things going on with Occupy Wall Street (like those idiotic Guy Fawkes masks, or drum circles) but positive change (like, say, separating consumer banking from speculation) only comes if it is demanded. Financial institutions have demanded plenty over the years, and have gotten it. Upper income American have demanded tax cuts, and gotten those. Occupy Wall Street is finally pushing the demands in the other direction- it’s finally pushing back against the small portion of the population that did much to damage the lives of countless people. We have massive unemployment largely because of rampant speculation on the part of a very specific class. It is right and proper to be angry at them.

Because of that, I support Occupy Wall Street, and sincerely hope that the signs and chants and marches and anger get translated into very real policy, because change isn’t coming by itself.

On Receiving Tips

In Jobs on May 28, 2011 at 3:32 pm
I got stiffed on tips earlier this week. It did not do my mood any favors. I had several other things to do over the course of the afternoon, and while I did get some refuge from a quite delicious cup of cold-brewed coffee, the lingering feeling of tiplessness stuck in my craw while I attempted to go about my other tasks. I sort of trudged through them, going “grrr” to myself while I attempted productive ambulation.

On other days, precisely the opposite happens. Some days after a tour the fives and tens and twenties come out in something like a flood, and my wallet has a reassuring fatness to it afterwards. People not only compliment and applaud me, but give me money as well.

On those days, after making perhaps $150 over the course of a few short hours, I’m hugely happy. I’ll treat myself to lunch at a favorite food cart, and I know that the rest of the day will have a comfortable ease. My heart won’t beat as fast and I’ll know that I can look to that stack of bills as a reassuring affirmation that I am, in fact, good at my job. The fives and twenties and tens say “You are smart, charming, and fun to be with. You were worth the price of admission and more. People like you so much, that you made enough in a single day to pay for two week’s worth of groceries.” (I think that my internal monologue has used the term “baller” once or twice after particularly successful tours.)

I like to think that I have a pretty good sense of when I’m on and when I’m not. After a fair amount of teaching, tour-guiding, and occasional stand-up, I like to believe that I can tell when I have a group of people and when I don’t. I’m my own harshest critic, though, and often I’ll be self-critiquing my own performance as I’m doing a tour. I’ll dwell on the tone of my voice, the meter I’m affecting, and the attention that people are paying to me, wondering if I’m doing it wrong or reading the crowd incorrectly. Then, at the end, they’ll tip me. When I’m hard on my self and then get tipped anyway, that’s a massive affirmation.

But, getting stiffed inevitably spoils my mood. I seldom think “Yeah, that was a lousy tour and didn’t deserve a tip,” though that has happened. Instead, I think to myself “What’s wrong with you cheapskates? You don’t like me? You don’t like the massive, personable knowledge-dump that I just gave you? You don’t like the map of Portland with restaurant recommendations that I just did for you? You don’t like my brilliant (though admittedly dumb) jokes? What?”

Sometimes it might just be because they didn’t know to tip a tour guide, or didn’t go to an ATM, or really couldn’t afford a tour in the first place and couldn’t do a tip on top of that. I suppose those are all reasonable. But still. A lack of cash makes me, as they say on the internet, a sad panda.

It’s nice to think that someone could be virtuous enough to not care about money, but I don’t think I’m alone in admitting that money makes me happy. Getting it, earning, feeling that I’m worth it and and not having to worry about it is a great feeling, and It’s somewhat silly to pretend otherwise. Money is one of those things (kind of like sex) that is seldom ironic, sarcastic, or bullshit. It’s a concrete backing to applause and thanks.

Ultimately, I would rather where prices and wages were a bit higher, and no one tipped. That would make things much easier, and my personal budget would be much more predictable. However, that’s not going to happen anytime soon. In the meantime, I’ll keep enjoying that high that I get from getting tipped.

Of course, the nice people who stiffed me wrote a pretty nice review of me on Trip Advisor later, so their lack of tip was probably just an honest mistake. Still, I dwell on it far too much. I love it and am exasperated by it, and the end of a tour when the wallets come out (or don’t) is perpetually a high or low part of my routine.

In Which Elvis Asks Me Who I Am

In Jobs, Portland on December 5, 2010 at 11:36 am

“Who are you?” asked Elvis. We were sitting across from each other on the MAX and he was looking directly at me. He stared through his massively thick glasses, quizzically. “I’ve seen you around a lot!”

Given that my primary job is the walk tourists around Portland whilst gesticulating at buildings, landmarks, etc., this wasn’t too unusual. A few other people have also recognized me and asked who I am.

“My name is Joe,” I said, “I’m a tour guide.”

“Oh, that makes sense,” said Elvis, “You’re in Saturday Market a lot. I’ve seen your groups. What do you tell them about?”

“Oh,” I said, “you’ve probably seen me telling them about the Skidmore Fountain.”

“Ah,” Elvis smiled a bit, “You know, you should tell them about me. You tell them about some stony old fountain, but you don’t tell them about one of the best things in Portland!”

Portland’s Elvis is an old guy, maybe in his fifties, sixties, I’m not sure. I’ve also got no idea what his real name is, but he’s known as Elvis throughout town, so that name works well enough. He’s wearing his black and gold jumpsuit is holding a guitar case. I’ve seen his guitar- it is a beautiful guitar. It has waves and surfers and ships and Hawaiian scenery on it. Everybody recognizes Elvis. He’s a fixture of the town. His picture is outside Voodoo Doughnut.

“I’ve seen you,” I said, “but I didn’t want to put you on the spot.”

This is true. I am completely comfortable talking about buildings or fountains or geographical features. I’m also okay talking about dead people. Talking about a real, live person who is walking around, though, like they’re a piece of architecture seems a bit weird to me.

“Why not? That’s why I’m there. Next time you see me, say ‘hi.'”

I say okay.

“I mean it!” says Elvis, “I’m part of Portland just like that fountain is.”

I have to admit he has a point. We talk for a bit and he asks me how I got a tour guide job. I told him I was a teacher, got laid off, and then turned into a tour guide. He says that he’s been performing at Saturday Market for twenty seven years. That is quite a bit of time, and he is part of Portland. If I have the opportunity, I would like to say hi to him on a tour, but don’t want to treat him like a mascot. I snuff that thought out, though, on account that its a tad patronizing. He is a part of Portland. I’ll say hi, next chance I get.

It’s my stop and I have to get off the MAX.

“Hey, one more thing,” says Elvis, “I’ve seen you tell that story about the guy launching the airplane off the roof of that hotel. Is that really true?” He’s referring to Silas Christofferson, who in 1912 flew an early lightweight craft off the roof of Portland’s Multnomah Hotel.

“It’s totally true,” I say, “But he was later killed in crash.”

“That’s too bad,” says Elvis, “but I’m glad it’s true. You say hi, next time!”

“Yes, sir,” I say, and step of the MAX.

And I really will, too.


In Consumerism, Jobs on December 17, 2009 at 11:32 pm

“You do realize,” said the HR woman, “That you’re very qualified for this?” The statement annoyed me. Yes, I realized that I was “very qualified,” by which she meant “overqualified.” Yes, I knew it would be a pay cut compared to what I was used to, yes, yes, yes.

“You do realize,” I wanted to say, “That there’s a giant fucking recession out there? Right?” I didn’t say that, though. Instead, I held my tongue and got a seasonal job at Macy’s, America’s Department Store. I was a teacher, once. Now I would sell pants and blenders and underwear and neckties.

Training was insultingly slow. I wanted to simply say, “I have done retail before, and I can see that your proprietary computer system is very intuitive. Can I start working now?” But, I had to slog through it anyhow. “A lot of people don’t have jobs right now,” I thought to myself, “a lot of people don’t have jobs…” (Echos of “There are starving kids in Ethiopia! Now clean you plate!” I don’t think my parents ever said that to me, though.)

My job is in Beaverton. The commute is long and I wish I could read on the bus, but I get motion sick. I listen to podcasts and music instead. The commute is the worst part of the job, in it’s own way. If I was going two hours to teach or do something meaningful, I wouldn’t mind as much, though.

I bought a black suit so I could work there. The dress code is black, all black. I know this makes us easier to identify for customers, and for security cameras.

We are supposed to sell the Macy’s credit card. I don’t feel comfortable selling a financial product that I don’t know the details of, so I haven’t bothered to push it. I exceed all my sales goals easily, but as far as I’m concerned the credit card can go fuck itself. They tried to get me to get one, and I said no. I don’t have any credit card debt, and I’m not really in favor of it generally.

People have lots of coupons. Most of the time, the coupons don’t work, especially with big brands like Levi’s and Calvin Klein. When the coupons don’t work, people get angry, but they buy the expensive things anyway.

Most of the time when people ask me questions about products, I just read them the labels on the products. “Is this dishwasher safe?” they ask. “Yes,” I say, reading the label that says so, “it is.” “Thank you so much,” they say, and then I ring them up.

Selling is easy. Lots of people just want to be reassured.

I wish our Macy’s has a Santaland. It doesn’t. Santa’s out in the mall, and there’s just a line up to his chair. He’s near the food court.

I talked to a woman who said this job was a ninety percent pay cut for her. I felt sorry for her, but I also wondered where all of her savings or whatever went.

Vendors from companies like Waterford, Calvin Klein and Calphalon are sometimes in the stores. One of them said to me “They treat you seasonal guys like shit,” and then apologized for swearing. I told her it was okay.

I keep wanting to tell people that I don’t do this in real life, that I’m not actually a Macy’s worker, that really I teach English. Being there is a blow to pride, and it really does sting, just like Marcellus Wallace said it would. (“A lot of people don’t have jobs. A lot of people don’t have jobs…”)

I was scheduled to work on Christmas Eve, and talked myself out of it.

Christmas music fills the store. Some of the songs are rock or hip-hop versions of Christmas tunes, and I think that these versions of the songs are embarrassing, like watching my dad try to dance.

There are no religious Christmas songs. I like those songs much better, usually. I like Oh Holy Night, Oh Come, All Ye Faithful, and Joy to the World. I like them all, and they are never, ever played.

They do sometimes play the theme from A Charlie Brown Christmas, though, and I like that.

Macy’s in Beaverton is part of a mall. I wish I worked at the downtown store. At that store, I could pretend that I worked at some classy joint in the heart of Portland. Instead, I work at a mall.

The mall would be okay if it had a bookstore to hang out in on lunches and breaks, but it doesn’t.

It does have two Starbucks’, though, and I often get coffee there. I don’t like saying “tall” or “grande” because I think it’s sort of silly so I’ll say something like “Can I get a twelve ounce coffee please?” “One tall coffee? Sure!” is a common reply. I don’t like hearing grown up people having to talk like that.

A guy behind me one day is laying it on thick “Thank you so much for shopping with us!” he says, and I want to punch him in the mouth. I’m always polite, but he’s obsequious, parroting all of the things in the training videos. I like finding real people in retail establishments, and he was a total Caufeldian phony.

I don’t like saying that things are “9.99” or 29.99.” Those are bullshit prices, and everyone knows it. I like saying that something is “ten” or “thirty dollars” much more.

My girlfriend drove me to work one morning and brought me coffee. I was touched, but also a little embarrassed that she saw me on the sales floor. Part of me doesn’t want anyone I know or respect to see me doing this.

I asked to stay on after Christmas. I don’t like it, I’m overqualified, but, yes, there’s a giant recession out there. A lot of people don’t have jobs…

China! (Possibly, Maybe)

In Jobs, Travel on June 2, 2009 at 9:33 pm

Even though I didn’t get the Foreign Service job, I’m still planning on living abroad again, and eventually working for either the government or a political organization. One of the best ways to get one’s foot in the door with that is joining the Peace Corps, and yesterday I was nominated for a position in China.

The recruiter told that things may change, and that this was all tentative. However, because of my experience as an English teacher, she said that she’d rather not send me to an ordinary English teaching position. Instead, the Peace Corps wants me to join their teacher training program, wherein I’d be teaching future English teachers both advanced English, and how to run a class. Most of these positions are in China, but the program has other locations in Asia as well.

I’m thrilled with this, and very much hope that circumstances allow me to go to China. I quite enjoyed it the last time I was there, and would very much like to learn a bit of Mandarin. What I find especially amusing, though, is that if this whole thing plays out, I’ll be in a situation already described by two of my favorite books.

River Town Peter Hessler is a memoir by a former Peace Corps volunteer about being in a teacher training program in China. The book and its sequel Oracle Bones are both excellent. I would not say that the books encouraged me to apply for the Peace Corps (those seeds were planted long ago) but they certainly made me want to travel and write more. I can’t recommend them enough.

So, I’m on track to do precisely what one of my favorite authors has already done, which is sort of cool/weird. It would be like joining the army and having the exact same assignments as Hemingway or something.

In any case, I’m thrilled to not only have been nominated for a position at all, but also for one that demands a certain amount of experience and expertese. Plenty of people whom I’ve talked to about the Peace Corps have said that there is a certain “hippy” factor to a lot of the volunteers, and the recruiter made it very clear that this program would be an actual, regular job. No chance to hippy around, though she did not say so in so many words. I couldn’t be happier about it. Of all of the positions that I could have been offered or nominated for, this would have been in my top five. I’ve still got to get poked and prodded by medical examiners, wade through tons of paperwork, and do a bunch of other stuff. But, I’m definitely leaving again, and wouldn’t have it any other way.

A Minor Setback

In Jobs on May 26, 2009 at 3:27 pm

Very few people who apply for the U.S. Foreign Service get job offers. About 2% of all applicants get offered jobs. I knew this going into the process, so I was not surprised earlier today when I got a letter informing me that, because of my experience, I will not be offered an interview in Washington, D.C.

Given that 80% of the people who take the Foreign Service Exam fail, I can’t exactly call this a blow to the ego. I passed the intellectual part of the application just fine. After that, came the biographical vetting. I knew that I was competing with people who law and master’s degrees and people who have lived abroad more than me, so I’m not exactly surprised. Still, I would be lying if I said I wasn’t upset at least a little. I am still proud that I passed the initial test, though, and will probably reapply after I have more experience under my belt.

At present, my Peace Corps application is doing fine. I don’t doubt that they will take me, given my experience abroad and as a teacher. I was offered a Peace Corps interview very quickly after my initial application, and it went well. I’m still going abroad long-term again, but I on a fallback plan.

Not that I have any room to bitch. I applied for a very, very privileged and elite position, and I’m still on track to accomplish my long-term goals. I have no regrets whatsoever about applying. Passing the Foreign Service Exam was a tremendous affirmation, and I’m not going to waste energy on regret. Peace Corps, here I come.

Back To School!

In Jobs on May 20, 2009 at 4:32 pm

I’m a teacher again. Specifically, I’m teaching ESL in Portland for Kaplan, the test prep company. After quite some time casting about for jobs, temping, and in general looming about and hoping that I’d win the Employment Lottery in the midst of a recession, I’m doing the same sort of thing that I used to do one ocean away. I’m quite pleased with this, really. Not only is it nice being employed, but I’ll cop to the fact that I’m really happy that I have an ego-affirming brain-based job that caters to very smart people. I don’t consider myself too good to wait tables, but it’s very nice to get paid because I have a big, squishy brain.

So far, the job is quite different from what I did at GEOS, which is nice, because towards the end of my stay in Japan GEOS was getting under my skin in lots of really irritating ways. As much as I liked (most of) my students, the company itself was less than inspiring. Kaplan itself is a subsidiary of the Washington Post, and so far my distant corporate masters seem pretty benign. It’s the arrangement of the school itself, though, that I’m quite liking.

For one thing, my students now come from a variety of backgrounds. Most of them are from Saudi Arabia or Korea, and if they want to talk to each other, they have to use English. I quite like this built-in incentive in the class, though clumps of like nationalities do tend to sit together, something I’ve tried to break up when I have them do group work.

That’s something else I like. There are a lot of them, and I can run large-scale class activities. Previously, I had between three to five students in a class most of the time, and while that setup has its advantages, the change is nice.

So far, though, the thing that I’m most pleased with the fact that I have the same students every single day, for three hours at a time. I did like the variety at GEOS, teaching different students throughout the week, but I often wondered what I could do as teacher if I had the same students more often. Now I have an opportunity to find out. Running a large class for three hours a day is quite different than running weekly hour-long sessions. The students themselves seem like a good lot, mostly university aged students. They’re all quite bright and creative, which makes things easier on my end. A few of them have rather fiendish imaginations that show up in their creative writing assignments.

This is all very nice for me, really. I had an interview with the Peace Corps (Plan B) a few weeks ago, and was told that if they take me (which they probably will) I’d most likely get put in a teaching position, barring some sort of unforseen torrent of English teachers into the program. I’m angling to get the Peace Corps to send me to China, and given that that’s where most of the English Teaching jobs are, that’s not an impossibility.

If I get invited to an Oral Assesment with the Foreign Service (Plan A) it definitely wouldn’t hurt to be able to say, “Well, yes, I just so happen to spend quite a lot of time talking to foreigners on a regular basis. It’s kind of my thing.” I’m hoping that a State Department functionary will perhaps raise their eyebrow in approval at this, or at least give a “hmm” of mild interest.

So, things are great for the time being. I have a nice place, a job, plans for the future, and have been satisfied with my recent creative pursuits. I could get used to this.

In Which I Find Myself Overqualified For a Good Cause, and Subsequently Return to Teaching

In Jobs on May 12, 2009 at 8:37 am

Until recently, this was my routine: Get up, check Craigslist and other listings, and respond to job postings. All sorts. Nearly anything I was qualified for. I thought of it as a numbers game- eventually something would come up, and eventually something did. I recently did a stint working for the Muscular Dystrophy Association, the nonprofit made famous by Jerry Lewis.

I’ve never actually seen any of Jerry Lewis’ movies, and the most prominent detail I knew about him was that he once let the word “faggot” slip while doing one of his telethons on live TV. The only thing I knew about muscular dystrophy was that Stephen Hawking has one version of it, albeit a rather rare one. Nevertheless, it was for a good cause. I certainly believed in funding medical research more than I believed in the child sponsorship model of private aid, which is what I was pitching in my brief stint as a street canvasser. Inviting people to fundraising events was definitely something I could do.

That was the job- calling up local business owners and professionals and asking them to come to fundraising events. Many of the contacts were warm leads or referals, but there were just as many people there who had never heard of us. “I don’t want anyone to say ‘I work in a call center,'” said one of the coordinators at the group interview, “you don’t. You’re not selling anything. You’re trying to get people to participate in a good cause.” This was true, but the job seemed very telemarketer-like, calling a long list of people and hitting them up for their time, money, and participation.

There were a little over a dozen people in the group interview, all of whom seemed to have been unemployed for some time. Many of them were young people of a certain demographic (mine) who had recently moved to Portland. Everyone seemed happy just to be in an interview. The whole process lasted for about two hours, and afterwards I got on the bus with a bunch of my fellow interviewees, each of us talking about our prospects for getting the job. In mid conversation, my phone rang and I answered it. I’d gotten the job. I suddenly felt a bit awkward- no one else’s phone rang. My fellow interviewees told me “congratulations” and I got off the bus awkwardly.

There were five of us the next day in training, in addition to five other volunteer coordinators. Cubicles of phones dominated the office. There was a script which we were expected to follow, and we were given a stock set of answers to deal with people who did not want to come to the fundraiser. There was also an MDA FAQ if anyone had any questions about where money was going, and we went through some telephone roleplays. The next day, we were good to go and on the phones.

Reaching for my list of numbers, I was nervous. The very first call seemed like an alien thing to do- calling up a law office and inviting the lawyers to a fundraising luncheon. I dialed with uncasual slowness, and asked for the names of one of the partners. The receptionist told me that he wasn’t there, anyway. I went to the next number on my list.

And that was it. That was my whole job. Most of the time when I was asking for a lawyer, business owner, doctor, or other such person, they were busy or away. This seemed logical, as we were targeting professional people who had fairly active lives. But, on the occasion that I got through to someone, I was surprised how easy the conversation was.

I tossed out the script, for one thing. We weren’t supposed to, but I found it poorly written and insincere, so I made my own rap. I wasn’t reading anything and didn’t sound canned at all. “We’re putting together a community event,” I said, “it’s a fundraiser and business luncheon to benefit families in Portland Metro Area who are affected by muscular dystrophy,” and so on. I got several people, maily lawyers, to say yes. A few said that they couldn’t come, but would be happy to write a check. None of the professionals told me to fuck off. They were really polite, even when saying no. That’s all part of being professional, I suppose. The secretaries, though, frequently took on snide and bitchy tones. I thought of the “bitchy secretary” as a hackneyed streotype, but apparently there are plenty of them. I imagined them filing their nails while they contemptuously talked into the reciever, like they were in an 80s movie.

I was pretty good, though, consistently getting yeses. It wasn’t particularly rewarding work, or stimulating, but it was a job and I could get results at it. However, I rather unexpectedly got an email from Kaplan, the tutoring company, while I was doing this. I’d applied to Kaplan some time ago, and had gone into their offices to do a teaching demonstration, which I thought had gone rather well. They hadn’t contacted me for some time, so I just assumed that they didn’t want to hire me. Out of nowhere they contacted me and said that they wanted to interview me as a potential ESL teacher.

This was great, of course. A teaching job with them was better in all possible ways- it was more money, a shorter commute, and loads more interesting. The interview went very well. I talked all about my time with GEOS, about my ideas regarding teaching, and about my general work habits. The interviewer, as it turned out, had spent a year in Osaka, which was a nice bit of rapport. A few hours later, he emailed me to tell me that I had the job.

Which meant I had to quit the MDA, of course.

When I went in yesterday, I knew it was my last day. I almost quit a day ahead of time, but decided to be responsible and get myself a day’s paycheck. Three of my coworkers had been let go for not getting enough yeses, and the office as a bit emptier. I was sort of proud of myself, knowing that of my hire group I was one of the two best people. The coordinators were a bit friendlier with me, after I’d proved myself. I didn’t really want to talk to them, though, since I knew I was ditching them. I felt bad. There would only be one person from my hire group left when I quit, and they would have to start all over, getting new people to call local businesses for them. Had I been bad at the job I wouldn’t have felt all that terrible about quitting. I would have thought, “well, I’m sure my replacement will be much better than me,” but I don’t think that’s the case.

Later today I’m going into Kaplan’s offices to fill out paperwork, do some training, and other such things. Apparently most of their ESL students are from Japan and Korea, which I think is sort of funny and sort of awesome. I’m imagining it as the inside-out of my GEOS experience. What I’m most looking forward to, (besides a paycheck and steady work), is being around people who are out of their element. Here in Portland, I’ve found it both fun and odd that the landscape seems to reflect my values and biases (or vice versa), and I’m looking forward to meeting students who’ve come from abroad and find this place foreign. I was in their shoes for so long, it’ll be nice to see it from the other side.