Tuesday, July 15, 2008

The Upswing


After describing the pit into which my life had fallen in the last blog entry, I wanted to record the marvelous reversals in fate that have occurred since Sunday.

“Please represent me, because you’re the only agent who could cope with me.” The agent to whom I’d sent the first 50 pages of my book responded to this pathetic plea by agreeing to take me on, but at my own peril. He recommends I don’t fall for his flattery and continue my search for The Perfect Agent. I don’t know if he’s any good at selling books, but anyone who describes himself as the descendant of an Irish horse thief and whose latest addition to his skill set is growing hair on his ears, sounds just perfect to me.

My mother is less easily impressed:
“I’m very suspicious of these people – “I’ll make you a star, I’ll get you into modeling” - How much do you have to pay this agent?” she demands.
“Nothing. He just takes a commission when I sell the book.”
“You see!” She is very canny, my mother. “Are you sure he’s reputable?”
“No, he’s entirely disreputable, that’s why I like him.”
“What?”
“No, seriously, I checked him out with a friend in the publishing world who said this guy has a great reputation for spotting talent and developing it, and that he’s someone editors in the business respect.”
“I don’t know… you’re such a worry to me - you’ve always lived so close to the edge. Why couldn’t you have been a dentist?”
“Because I’d have been bored on the first day and wired someone’s teeth together just for the heck of it.”
“I should never have had children, I should have bred poodles,” she laments.

My son, with all the world-weariness of a 13 year old, says he’ll congratulate me when the agent has read the rest of the book.

But my mum did send me an email this morning in her terrible, tortured typing, entitled “apresent” and saying, “I,ve sent some cash and hope your luck changes soon. It WILL. Love Mum.xx (I guess getting an agent doesn’t register for her as the Best Thing That’s Happened To Me Since My Composition Was Read Out To The Class In Junior Two, like it does for me). She’s lovely my mum. Her heart’s in the right place and God forbid she should ever change - she provides me with an inexhaustible source of material.

My other inexhaustible source of material, my health care provider, did not disappoint. Today, after four days of getting a recorded message when trying to obtain my biopsy results, I finally called member services, who managed to put me through to Debbie, the advice nurse in dermatology.
“Debbie! I was beginning to think you weren’t a real person!”
“Yes, well I’ve been on vacation. So there we are.”
There we are indeed. Stress-related illnesses are obviously low on Kaiser’s list of preventable diseases.
“You HAVE got skin cancer,” she says after rustling through the notes. Visions of my coffin being carried through the street. “But it’s only superficial.” How can you only superficially have cancer? Is that like being a little bit pregnant? “Nothing like the melanoma you had before.”
“Before?”
“Yes. Wait a minute, what’s your name again? Louise? Okay, I read that wrong. There was just a suspected melanoma. Anyway, the doctor will be contacting you about taking it off.”
“It is off. I have a great big hole in my back. The mole’s in a little bottle somewhere.”
“Little bottle,” she repeats, testing out the 't's.
“Yes, Debbie.”
“Okay. Well, I’ve been on vacation. So there we are.”

After this conversation, I spent an interesting afternoon getting up to speed on legalese and contract law. My new agent suggested I wrote the contract as I didn’t like the one he offered me. Smart man, that agent; I’m fixing his contract boilerplate even now. I am just wondering if it’s all still legally binding if you get rid of the “hereafter, herein, and hereofs.” Is it like a spell and these are the magic words that give it power? As a lover of language, but no lover of obsolete Elizabethan English, I’ve taken them all out, which probably means I’m completely wasting my time because any lawyer will look at it and snort: “This cannot be upheld in law because people can UNDERSTAND it! What were you thinking?”

Things are looking promising on the job front too: I had a telephone interview for a job in Palo Alto, where I would be working as a Program Officer for a relatively new foundation. I would have a portfolio of 50 grantees, including some in developing countries. Groovy! I’ve always wanted to get into International Development, but so far have been unable to convince anyone I have the qualifications. Luckily, this foundation seems more gullible than most. So I’d better get working on that contract, because hopefully I will soon be busy packing up my house (or rather, what’s left of the furniture once I’ve got rid of the various items that serve as Flea HQ) and moving to Northern California. When I pick up my son from the airport after his trip to London, the conversation will go something like this:

“Hello, darling. Did you have a nice time?”
“Yes.” (Teenagers only answer in monosyllables.)
“We have to go to gate 15.”
“Why?”
“So we can board our flight for Palo Alto. But don’t worry, I brought your Junior Police Academy certificate and the Joseph Wambaugh’s books will follow in the crate with our furniture.”
“Furniture?” He is so taxed by the attempt to communicate in multi-syllables the iPod earphones pop out of his ears.
“Yes, the coffee table.” Registering his frown. “It’ll be fun! A whole new adventure. And then there’s always the book deal to look forward to. Perhaps we can use the money to buy you a bed.”
“God!” he mutters, and rams the earphones back in his ears.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

You Know Life is Sucky When...

You panic when you hear a Californian bank has failed
And then realize you don’t have any money to withdraw anyway

The pulled muscles in your back hurt too much to sit
But you can't lie on the floor because of the fleas

Your sister sympathizes about the washing machine that broke
But you don’t have a washing machine
(It was the computer, fridge/freezer and car that broke)

The doctor gives you a number to call for your biopsy results
And it is answered by a recorded message
For two days
And counting…

You’re supposed to be enjoying time for yourself
But cry when the store clerk asks if you miss your son

You ask the eight ball if you’re going to get that job
And the eight ball doesn't work

Saturday, July 5, 2008

Passing the Sniff Test


Her email address reads: Penelope Davis, Ph.D. This may be the first clue that my future boss may be a little hung up on appearances. Other information was not forthcoming, despite a series of increasingly urgent emails. This is how I end up sitting in Starbucks one hour before the client interview, during which I am to represent myself as the Project Manager for a project about which I am remarkably vague. But $40K a year is no small incentive, especially as I’m seriously unemployed right now.

Twenty minutes later, a tall white woman comes through the doors talking animatedly into her Blackberry. She stops two feet away and despite my smile, continues to stare into the middle-distance: “No, just include it in the proposal with the other… I know, but we have to get this out today. I’ll see when I’m back in the office… Okay, bye.”
“Penelope?” She turns to me blankly, as if surprised that the only other white woman in the place should turn out to be the Program Evaluator from England.
“I need to use the restroom,” she says, pivoting on her four-inch heels.

I have to admit to feeling a little pissed off. Terribly busy people think that being terribly busy is a legitimate excuse for inconveniencing other people who obviously have less busy and therefore less-important lives.

A flash of shiny magenta blouse crosses my vision as Penelope plops down in the armchair opposite. She pauses, looking quizzically at my face, then proffers her hand. “Penelope Davis. Pleased to meet you.” I shake the outstretched hand and then wait as she rearranges her Jimmy Choo purse on the table in front of us. I know it’s Jimmy Choo because each corner has a large, shiny gold hinge emblazoned with “Jimmy Choo.” I guess the ostentatious bag serves the same purpose as the email address – lest we forget.

There is now only twenty minutes before we have to leave for the client’s office, so I start straight in with my questions: Why no parent measures?
“Well, the program is not for high-risk youth, so we wouldn’t expect behavior changes,” she answers, with the tight smile of someone who’s just been asked to deposit money into an account in Nigeria. “It’s what we call high cost, low yield data.”
“But as a parent,” I go on, refusing to be intimidated by the academic bling, “I know that any changes in my child, I’m going to notice them first. Besides, with only the staff and students as data sources, don’t we need to triangulate?” Hah! Stuff that in your Jimmy Choo!

Penelope puts her arms into her black jacket – a signal we need to leave? Preparation for a showdown? Does she have the tasseled mortarboard to match? She appears to be wearing the star from the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree on her jacket, or maybe it’s a hi-tech device that is even now broadcasting live to the American Evaluation Association, offering further evidence of my attempts to bring the profession into disrepute. “We’ll also be using a standard assessment tool,” she fixes me with that same cold smile, tapping her finger on the proposal document. “We have 17 research assistants we can send out to the sites.”

Seventeen research assistants? This is definitely the time to ask. “Your partner said forty thousand dollars when he first spoke to me. Am I still in the budget for the same amount?”
“Ah, yes. That’s something else we changed. You’re now in for thirty thousand.” She registers the flinch. “If that’s okay.”

But we don’t really have time to discuss whether I can coordinate this project (including the legion of research assistants) on only five hours a week, because it’s time to set off for the interview. Circling the client’s building, I wish I had paid more attention to the parking instructions. The entrance to the underground parking proclaims, “Only for the clients of the Curacao supermarket.”

I am expelled from the elevator directly into the office, in full view of the people assembled in the conference room to my right. Dr. Davis turns her head without disturbing a single perfect strand of her orange Cleopatra haircut. “I thought I was in the wrong place!” I exclaim, dumping my pile of papers on the table, “Solamente para los clientes de Curacao!” A handsome Latino man at the table looks up and smiles when he hears the Spanish. Dr. Davis seems to be suffering from indigestion. Recovering, she launches into the pitch:

“We have conducted many multi-site evaluations, including a National Youth Survey,” she says, lowering her lashes in false modesty, “and can help you achieve model program status.” Hang on! We don’t know this program warrants model program status. In fact, we know nothing at all beyond the opinion of a District Supervisor, who told Penelope the program is "good." The previous evaluation only proved that while the kids remained in the program they were kept off the streets. Amusement arcades do the same thing. But after being asked exactly how many after-school programs she has evaluated, Penelope turns to me.

“People work in social programs because they believe with all their heart and soul they are making a difference… Well, it’s certainly not for the pay!” This raises a laugh. “So I ask the staff what tells them there is a change – even if it’s a smile on a kid’s face – and help them to measure that change. I don’t believe in the approach of some academics who come in with a whole bunch of assumptions and then try to impose their framework of outcomes and measures to prove some theory, and completely miss what’s really going on. I’m not interested in publishing, I’m interested in making programs the best they can be.” The Latino man, who turns out to be the Program Director, nods his head. Penelope has become red in the face.

“Of course, we’re not going to make Louise do anything she doesn’t like,” her smile oozes like mango sorbet around the room – sweet and chilly, “That’s why we’re here! I’m not an academic, I’m a clinical psychologist, so I don’t need to publish, but,” she continues in a hushed, serious tone, “to become a model program the evaluation has to be published in a peer-reviewed journal and” she looks hard at me “we have to use standard instruments in order to pass the sniff test.” Which I apparently don’t.

I spend the rest of the hour kicking myself for pitching the project all wrong, then resenting the fact that Mrs. Choo had not taken the time to prepare me. When it’s all over, the Program Director and I drop into easy conversation on our way to the door. “So you work in South Gate and Huntington Park? They’re my old stomping grounds,” I tell him.
“Yeah, we’re doing some really exciting work, organizing the parents and families.” I look at him, astounded.
“Why didn’t we talk about this during the meeting?”
“Oh that? That was just data,” he says, confirming that there are things Dr. Davis and her standard instruments will never find out.

As the elevator door closes over Penelope’s face (which still maintains the professional expressionlessness of the clinical psychologist, but only just), I am left wondering if I could ever have worked under this Over Achiever who is philosophically at the opposite end of the spectrum when it comes to evaluation… and fashion accessories. Then I wonder if I’m not interested in publishing after all: Godbold, L. A. (July 2008). Passing the Sniff Test: A Case Study on How Not to Win Evaluation Contracts.

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