Wednesday, June 29, 2011

Seek and Employ

It is no secret that today’s job market is struggling. Some of those lucky enough to have a decent job are finding that their work load is going up while their salaries are staying the same, and bonuses are disappearing. With a 12 percent unemployment rate in Florida, according to the US Department of Labor, those out of work are lining up to step in and fill your job if you decide to make a fuss and start proclaiming that it’s “unfair” and posting quotes from Ayn Rand’s novel “Atlas Shrugged” in the break room. As companies streamline their bottom line by cutting budgets and leaning heavily on their bases, it is no surprise that many people are hitting the classifieds and online job postings in search of their dream job and a little reprieve. However, after the first couple days on the hunt, it is clear that many leads are dead ends or some form of a bait and switch. Disillusion creeps in and that dream job landing in your lap starts to feel further out of reach.

I moved to south Florida to work in the event production industry and, over the past four years, have worked for some great companies and done some exciting events. Miami is known for its great weather and outdoor lifestyle, so it is a good bet that any given weekend will provide a number of events, both local and national. Beaches, venues, parks, amphitheaters and other attractions bring plenty of action our way and also support many local jobs. Although I have always enjoyed my work, it does carry the same frustrations and glass ceiling found in any other industry. Maybe I am just impatient and my “show your worth through your work” attitude has not set me up for the slow and steady pace of the corporate ladder, but I find myself longing for something exciting and new, a company poised atop a unique niche within the industry. It is, after all, human nature to strive for the next level and seek out the “best of the best.” For me, that dream job is with a company bold enough to take risks and nurture fresh ideas. And guess what? Last fall one such company fell in my lap.

A friend in Chicago tipped me off to a company his law firm had worked with called Red Frog Events. They are relatively young, currently entering their fourth year, and produce some of the fastest growing events around. In my last article I wrote about one of their events called The Great Urban Race, a traveling urban scavenger hunt hitting cities nationwide, and coming to Miami this March. Their other two events, Beach Palooza and Warrior Dash, round off a trio of home-run productions, putting them in a position of quick and exponential growth worldwide. After checking out the Red Frog Events., I was drawn to the “world’s best benefits” tab. Red Froggers are privy to a number of perks: amazing health, dental, life and vision insurance, unlimited vacation days, $100 monthly cell phone reimbursement, free food, drinks and beer, a fully paid four week vacation for you and a friend to Europe, Asia, Africa or Australia, a free birthday massage, a $1,000 match to your favorite charity, and more. It was instantly clear that a job with them would be both rewarding and fun. So, after taking all this in, I was smitten to learn that they are hiring! Every three to four months they bring on a group of interns known as event coordinators to dive right in to their day-to-day activities and learn the ins and outs of event production at their very own Camp Red Frog in Chicago. The only way to get a full-time gig with them is by completing this internship, so I had found my “in” and got right to work getting my foot in the door.

Last October, I sent in my resume, cover letter, and even a YouTube video I made (the position is very sought after so bringing your A-game is a must!) and held my breath. A week later I got a call from their office to set up a phone interview. They receive over 100 applications a day, so this is a big accomplishment. After that goes well, I am informed that I made it to the two percent of people who are offered an in-person interview. A quick call to an old roommate who lives two miles away from their downtown Chicago office confirms that there is a spare bedroom at her place I could use if need be. I book my flight, call my family and try to tame my excitement as I wait for my big day.

The morning of my interview starts with some strong coffee and a glance over my notes before heading up to the fifth floor of their office. My feeling at this moment is comparable to the type of awe you see in the eyes of a child. Standing there off the elevator I felt like Charlie gripping his golden ticket at the gates of the chocolate factory. I was beckoned through a pair of double glass doors complete with hand-carved red frog handles and immediately start to take in the ambiance of the office. Straight ahead are a couple of cubicles with RipStik boards and Nerf guns strewn across the daily calendars. The intern work space is shaded by two giant trees sprouting from the wood floors to the high ceiling amongst lily pad-shaped light fixtures. Past the trees is the centerpiece of Camp Red Frog: the tree house. Complete with rope ladders, a slide, and Fatboy bean bag chairs, the tree house serves as a conference room.

Before the interview I am led on a short tour. As we start, I am led past a projected image of a map listing all their upcoming events. Recently added to their lineup are events in London and Australia. I am led passed a rock climbing wall, a fire pit and a giant stuffed bear; but don’t worry animal lovers, it’s not a real bear. Last stop before my interview is the kitchen, complete with a soda fountain, free cans of Red Bull, a beer keg (yes, you can enjoy a beer while working!) and tons of snacks for the taking.

Finally I arrive at a corner room complete with a conference table made entirely out of Lego bricks with a big Red Frog logo in the center. I am greeted by both Ryan Kunkel and Joe Reynolds, the founder and vice president of the company. Their titles are of course more unique: Joe is the architect of adventure and Ryan is the master of monkey business. Although I have many years of experience in event production and have the personality that seems to fit the company culture, I am quietly reflecting on the weight this interview will have on me. I am thinking about my frustrations with trying to navigate through a barren job market and how gratifying this job would be for me. In the few seconds it takes me to sit down and greet them both, I find myself envisioning the life of a Red Frogger. I can see myself as a well accomplished and valued member of this smart and innovative company, spending my days hard at work in this beautiful office as I sip draft beer and watch other fresh faced applicants make their pilgrimage from all over the United States to those double glass doors as I did so many years ago. I pull my head out the clouds and dive right into securing my place here by acing this interview.

I don’t want to give away the questions asked inside that room, but I will mention that some of them were unusual. This is no surprise, nor is it a problem. While preparing for the interview, I did not saturate my notes with the cut-and-paste answers you might find in a “How to get through an interview for dummies” book. I wanted to stay loose and expect the unexpected. However, after a while I can’t help but notice an inner dialogue threatening to shake my focus. Will not getting this job mean I failed? What about the friends who know how badly I want this? If I don’t get it, what will I say to my family and loved ones whom I so desperately want to make proud? I start to change strategy mid-interview and second-guess all my answers. I am thinking mid-question about what might be the answer they want to hear instead of being myself. It is a classic mistake, and I found my nerves sabotaging my original plan of attack. Those little cracks in the foundation can really shake your resolution if you let them, which I did. I shifted to auto-pilot and did not shine the way I had anticipated.

I am answering the question, “What sets you apart from the other applicants?” and I can’t even remember what I just said. Instead, I am watching their reactions, wondering what they are writing down in their folders. Do they see the real me behind this semi-formal shell? Can’t we just grab a couple beers and spend an hour at the corner pub where I can display my infectious charm and wit? I’m wondering how I would judge me if I were them. Did I misjudge what to wear? Am I coming across as desperate? Am I desperate? Are they putting big check marks and smiley faces next to my name or a big, fat X?

The interview ends and we exchange firm handshakes, gracious smiles and warm wishes for the upcoming New Year. I leave the conference room strong, hoping my facade did not give away any signs of the subconscious mutiny I had just endured.  As I gather my things and prepare to head back into the cold Chicago air, I pause to take stock of myself.  I want to run back there, tell them all the things that I forgot, re-answering the questions with the home run responses that have instantly popped in my head. Instead, I pass back through the double glass doors and down towards the ground floor, wondering how many others applicants will share the same anxiety and lament in this very elevator.

A week later I received an email letting me know they chose another candidate for the position. Bummer, but I was kind of expecting it. I thanked them for the opportunity and wished them well, with a postscript that I would love to be considered for future positions if and when they open up. In retrospect, it kind of felt like offering my number to the girl who had turned it down the night before. At this point I am back in Miami getting back into the swing of things with work and preparing for the night’s New Years Eve party. The year 2010 is just hours away from being behind me and, surprisingly, I feel great. As the ball drops I am at a house party at the Cloisters in coconut grove, standing on the roof of a condo and watching the fireworks shimmer over Biscayne Bay. All around me are people I love, people who love me for being the person always there to cheer them up with humor or a good story. I realize that the tragedy I thought I had endured was no more than a noble shot in the dark with a company that gave me a great interview experience and an optimistic perspective for the new year.

Two weeks after hearing about the company, I had secured an interview granted to only the top two percent of applicants. If I can get such a positive response from seeking out my own job prospects instead of wading though the same old job posts I find only semi-worthwhile, then perhaps sitting around and waiting for opportunity to find me was not the right approach. With a little refinement and leg work, I am sure 2011 will be the year I utilize this seek-and-employ attitude with other great companies.
The job hunt is a race not unlike those put on by Red Frog Events. You must challenge yourself, take some risks, put on your best warrior face and aim for the finish line. As the last of the fireworks explode across the water, I raise a glass to my fellow Miamians and drink to high hopes, broad perspectives and endurance on the battlefield.

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

the Harami

Last Christmas, much to my protest, my mother informed me that during my visit she would be sitting me down to have..."a talk." Being one of two boys raised by a loving single mother, I had a short list of possible topics this could be about, and each one seemed about as comfortable as chewing tin foil. I practiced my vacant stare and repetitive head nod in anticipation of hearing my mother say words like "prophylactic" and "intercourse"...words that might very well defy general relativity when spoken by your mother; forming both weight and mass out of thin air as they slam into your ears like rocks from a sling shot.

So, after a couple days of deflection and subject changing, it was time to let my mother have her moment and set her mind at ease. I quickly sent a barrage of text messages letting old friends know I am in town and to please call if they want to meet up for a drink, hoping someone responds and offers a quick and easy reprieve. My mother worked for the bulk of my memorable life, driving hours out of her way and spending whole days on her feet to brave the jungle that is women's retail management to afford my brother and I the best education and indulge the many social dress codes requirements we felt would place us at the "cool table" during lunch period. (I still miss my cross-colors leather jacket and underoo shoes). So when I say I was dreading this 'talk' it is not to say I don't need her advice or appreciate her concerns, just that she raised the kind of man who learned at a young age how to be responsible and she does not need to worry about me making the right choices. If my mother asked me to dig her an in-ground pool in the back yard before dinner I would gladly do it to help pay back for her years of hard work and the sacrifice of a social life in the name of her kids. Still though, the sooner the dark cloud of uncomfortable subject matter looming over our living room is gone, the better.

I pull up a chair and let out an obnoxious groan..."Ok mom, lay it on me!" I stare at my feet for a while, using expert concentration to keep my brow furrowed in a defeated position hoping she still finds this as charming and funny as she did when I would lament how I 'just need a couple bucks to go to the movies AND grab a bite to eat later'...Her predictable smirk whilst I play my martyr role is not showing up for this conversation, in fact her whole demeanor has caught me off guard. To my surprise, SHE is the one fumbling for words, looking me straight in the eye, starting to talk...then retreating. It is as if she just wants me to know what she has to say without having to say it. Her words are forming mass, as only a mothers words can, and instead of inflicting their wrath on me, they are retreating back down her throat and causing her eyes to tear up. "Mom?" nothing yet. "Jesus mom, your scaring me." I go on speaking aimlessly, searching her face for answers. "I know all about...well, mom, if your trying to tell me about..." whats that word again? "...errr, sex," the word comes up like a double shot of tequila, "you really don't have to worry." She looks both concerned and humored, but shakes her head "no". I am relieved, considering the timing for such a talk seemed a little late, however now I am disarmed...if its not that, then what? "Well," I mutter, "whats up then?" Her concentration worries me, "Are you worried about me? Concerned I didn't go to law school? I'm happy, you know, I'm doing fine, you don't need to worry." The fan in the room makes a ticking sounds like a metronome, dividing the lengths of silence into countable spaces. "I love you mom, you know that."
She gives a warm look that says both: "of course I know that," and "you are way off".

She speaks: "I am so proud of who you are and what you have become. I know you are doing fine, and I am so happy with my two boys...we have had a tough life yet you wouldn't know it by the way we hold our heads." I beam, "RIGHT! Mom, don't worry, I may not be a millionaire yet, but I know life is about more than that...c'mon, I'm living my life my way and I take nothing for that it?!" She just smiles and shakes her head no. "Well what mom," I laugh, "am I ADOPTED or something?" She pauses..."no sweety, you are not adopted.....but I do need to tell you about who your biological father is."    
My phone beeps as someone I had sent a text to five minutes ago is surely taking me up on my drink offer...I turn the phone off and try to remind myself to blink.

One of the wonderful gifts that prep school gives to its tender youth is the ability to always be on guard and ready for any attack or least if you have bastard friends like I do (regrettable description, i know). But I love them for it, as any modern man would. So believe me when I say there are few situations today that I am not prepared for, few times I actually feel "shocked". I don't mean the "holy shit, my keys WERE in these jeans!" kind of revelation that happens weekly, but something that penetrates all the way down to your core and questions those long ago agreed upon definitions and parameters about who you are. As I sat and listened to the details around my conception (thankfully not too detailed), and the events surrounding my birth I am shocked. My father knew about it, my older brothers knew part of it and the bio dad was also privy to it (although the extent of his involvement is somewhat hazy). My parents were going through a rough patch, bio-dad was a long time friend of my mom and was also married with a handful of daughters. Furthermore he was, and is still, a performer and very much in the public eye with a spotless image to boot. Showing up at his door for a father son game of catch does not sound like something he would be oiling up his glove for anytime soon.

Don't be offended, but much of the conversation is paraphrased and details left out, perhaps once the facts are better understood you can chew the rest of this meaty drama in a later blog. But I will tell you this, the next hour is one of the most genuine and illuminating conversations I have ever had in my whole life. My mother, the action hero/iron chef/all knowing/all seeing being that she is, actually became human for a brief second. She tells me first why I am only learning about this now, how she never wanted it to affect my delicate developmental years. I am grateful for this, no matter what anyone else might think or offer as their opinion. If I knew about this in high school and someone said the wrong thing to me I might have taken it the wrong way and taken it out on others. I don't think puberty is conducive for such a mature and defining topic. If I can't keep a clear complexion or have a rational reaction to the girl who just won't see how great a couple we'd be (Lisa, we would have been so good together!) then who knows what kind of emotional hurricane something like this would cause. In fact, I impressed myself with how I absorbed the news. If I were to step outside the situation and speculate how it would affect someone else, it would be hard to imagine something so heavy running parallel to ones' life for so long without eventually crashing into his very being with disastrous consequences. The truth is my mother carried this situation for the whole family, letting it rot and fester inside her in order to protect her boys. Like a solider blanketing a grenade, she and my father decided I was to be his son, knowing the circumstances around my conception were in question, his pride would not allow any further investigation and she 'went along' with what was best for our family.

In the defense of my father, and in case you were wondering, he treated me as if I had personally strung the moon. Even after the divorce and our time together was limited to a couple weeks out of the year, I saw nothing but pride and love in his eyes. I was his little entertainer, mingling effortlessly at art showing parties held at our Vegas mansion and telling what was surely painful knock knock jokes to his fellow doctor friends and contemporaries. Looking back I stood in stark contrast to the kind of upbringing he surely had, rigid and achievement oriented, leaving the potential for concern over the artistic and "stargazing" character I had as a child; concerned more with discovering the wisdom found by digging in the back yard than digging through text books. He will always be my father and I am equally proud and appreciative of him as he was of me.

If you want to be crude about it you could say that I am a "bastard"...go ahead, you know you want to! Despite being called this for years by slighted ex girlfriends and those friends not quick enough to call shotgun, it is unsettling to think of how many times I myself have thrown this prickly word around and if it ever caused any unintended damage. Semantics is a dangerous thing.

I recently read Khaled Hosseini's second novel, "A Thousand Splendid Suns," in which one of the main characters finds that the name her mother calls her when she wants to cut her down a notch, '"harami", means "bastard." She finds that her father is of a higher class, the master of the household in which she and her mother both live and work. The girl, Miraiam, did not think of herself as belonging to a class, certainly not one that is "beneath" another. Ah, how naive children are. She thought that after learning who her father was she could just stroll over from the peasants quarters, knock on her papa's door and he would take the family out for ice cream and a disney film. But in modern society things are not that transparent. Being 'good' means the man you are behind closed doors emulates the man you are on the street. For every dishonorable act you have ever committed there is a dinner table full of friends and neighbors somewhere dying to feast on the gory details of your shame. Closets were made for more than clothes, especially when you stop to think how many skeletons are crammed in your own closet. I know a full and open telling of my relatively short life would feed plenty mahjong and bridge tables with gossip and fodder for years to come.
I will not go into much more about bio dad as this is still a fragile situation. While I may be ready to figure it out and see where the cards land, it is important to me that he does not feel rushed or uncomfortable by my request. I have spent a year corresponding with his assistant, sending tongue in cheek emails hoping to steal away a spot in his schedule in which he can find the time for me. If it were any other man I could hop on a plane and share with him the kind of man my family and friends are privy to. I may be biased, but I think I have turned out to be a damn fine man, all things considered. But sadly he operates in a town and industry that eats its own dead, providing scores of people drooling over what you have and how they can get a piece of it.  I do want to figure out the truth for my own piece of mind, but if this means compromising his carefully planned steps or having to push and shove my way in where I do not fit, then forget it...not worth it.

In a way it is refreshing to learn some things can still shock me, the wonder you feel when you first learn about the workings and size of the universe or the gut wrenching anguish you feel when you realize that the big bearded guy in the sky is not real (Santa or God, I'll let you pick which one). Those painful discoveries are just as important as the joyous ones when it comes to molding the person you become...some clay gets slapped on and some gets shaved off, leaving the most genuine thing you will ever shape...yourself. And as I look at the progress I am making, I am thankful for the guidance provided by a lifetime of friends and a wonderful family. I can only hope I had a hand in shaping them as much as they have for me.