Monday, September 1, 2014

Whistle While You Work

JULIA SPENCER-FLEMING: Once again, it's Labor Day, the American holiday that honors workers by giving them the day off their jobs (unless you're in retail, in which case you're punching in on Labor Day and at 3pm on Thanksgiving, too. Maybe we should bring back Blue Laws?) Two years ago, we wrote about the worst jobs we ever had. Lucy won that one hands down, with her college job feeding chunks of raw liver to axelotls.

This Labor Day, I thought we could dish on the best jobs we've ever had. For me, it was being a docent at The Dumbarton House, a beautiful Federal house museum in Georgetown in DC. I was working on my masters in museum studies at George Washington University, and this was literally the perfect job. I took visitors through the meticulously restored rooms, explaining the history of the house, furnishings and the family. Since Dumbarton House was one of the lesser-known gems in Washington, I had a lot of free time. I would hang out in the cozy kitchen, drinking tea or getting home-baked goodies from volunteers. The house is the headquarters of the Society of Colonial Dames, so they were all lovely older ladies who thought becoming a museum professional was about the best thing ever. Or, I would spread out my books and papers and work in the library. When my stint was done, I would walk through the leafy, cobblestone streets of Georgetown, admiring the restored house facades, and then do a bit of window shopping on Wisconsin Ave. before catching my bus to the Cathedral area, where I lived. It was the only job I've ever had where I ended the day more refreshed and energized than when I had started.

How about you, Reds? Have you ever had a dream job?

HANK PHILLIPPI RYAN: Oh, I love my job right now! And I
almost always have, ever since my first real job as a radio reporter, then for Rolling Stone Magazine, then a US Senate staffer, then a TV reporter. All wonderful! But as a teenager, I did have a dream job. I worked in a record store.
Records. You know records, right?

It was called Lyric Records, and it was a tiny one-room store in downtown Indianapolis. (It also had those little booths where people could take records and listen.) Part of my job was to select the record that would be on the store's sound system. To make it more fun, I would suss out each customer who came in, and see if I could pick a new record they would love. Everything sounded so good on the store's speakers! And it was really interesting to see if my intuition clicked  You'd see the customer's head come up, and they'd stop, and listen, and then come up to me and say--what's that playing right now?

And I knew I had scored.. (Malcolm Gladwell would love this, right?)

I sold a LOT of Harry Nilsson.

LUCY BURDETTE: I truly enjoyed my work as a
psychologist, but I can't think of any jobs I love more than being a writer. I certainly don't love every minute (like now, for example, when I know I need to be getting four-five pages done every day for the next few months and I'm not sure where the plot is headed...) But I love so much about it--an idea that comes out of nowhere and makes your hair tingle...seeing the book cover or the page proofs for the first time...hearing from readers...and most of all, the dear friends I've made. I consider myself beyond lucky to have this job!

HALLIE EPHRON: Most challenging, most rewarding job I ever had was my first year teaching. Fresh out of NYU with an MA in education, I was hired to teach a sixth-grade class of "non-English-speaking" kids at PS 189 on 189th Street and Amsterdam in Manhattan. I had no idea what I was doing (I was not trained to teach non-English) and there were NO materials. Zip zero zilch, other than first-grade readers which were so inappropriate for 12-year-olds and 6th-grade textbooks  that they couldn't read in other subjects.
So I winged it. I remember Roberto who was just off the boat from Cuba. Evaristo and Evangelina from Greece. An adorable Latvian kid and his twin sister. Poor Xiomara from the Dominican Republic who was so confused that by the end of the year she barely still spoke Spanish. Solemn-faced Roxanna who was so bright and I hope turned out to be a writer. I can remember almost every child in that class, and to say I learned as much as they did that year would be an understatement. I hope the NYC public schools now have materials for kids like mine - they deserved better.

RHYS BOWEN: I've been a writer for most of my life and that seems to be the perfect job for me--especially since they invented laptop computers. I can sit and write under a palm tree on a beach or a mountain top. I get to live in a pretend world. However my first real job after college was in the BBC drama department and sometimes that seemed like a dream job. I got to work with the biggest names in British stage and cinema. Imagine me as as twenty two year old telling Sir John Guilgud where to stand! When we had the perfect cast, a wonderful script and on the day we were recording we sometimes went on until midnight. Then we'd all go out to a pub to celebrate and when I came in the next morning there would be flowers on my desk from the producer. I remember telling my parents I couldn't believe I was being paid for it!

DEBORAH CROMBIE: Oh, you are all so glamorous!  Before I sold my first book, I had a couple of either dull or really awful jobs. Other than those, I worked off and on in my family's business for more than a decade. My parents were manufacturer's reps in the theater concession business. I liked the business but was never passionate about it, unlike my dad, who had built it up from scratch. I think if I hadn't become a writer, my dad would have been heart broken that I didn't want to carry on his legacy. As it was, he was hugely proud of my achievements. And the business taught me a lot about people skills--invaluable for a writer.

So I think I can safely say that writing is THE BEST job I've ever had, or ever dreamed of having, even with those nasty deadlines...

How about you, dear readers? What were your best jobs?


  1. Best job? I really enjoy my current job at the church, but I also loved the years I spent teaching. First graders are absolutely amazing . . . .

  2. I LOVED that trailer! And now I am singing. And wanting popcorn.

    Happy Labor Day, all. (I am about to hit 99,000 words!)

  3. I think I was born to be a retired person. This is the best job I've ever had - with the time, finally, to do all those things there just wasn't time to do before. Writing, photography classes, and whatever comes next.

    BUT - I have to say, the very first job I ever had was working at Whitey's Candy Store in Cambridge, MD where I grew up. I did this after school and some Saturdays with my best friend Pam. Whitey was, in his other life, Judge Barth. Father of author John Barth. John Barth would stop in to Whitey's for a visit with his mom and dad and was the first author I ever met.

  4. Best job I ever had was at my local library. In-between 'real' (i.e., that paid enough to live on) jobs. We were just coming online as part of the fabulous Clevnet library system--there was NO STRESS--just books for kids, books for adults, books and movies and music for everyone who walked through the doors. My co-workers were fun to be with and all suggestions regarding new programs, displays, were welcomed. Have kids read to dogs? Sure, let's do it! Involve the community in a D-Day display? Let's do it! Write a grant for children's materials? Go for it! And my littlest nephews also thought I had the best job EVER! To this day, they still love that library. As do I!

  5. Yay, Hank! That's the best type of labor - the writing as you get near the end of the book!

    Joan, I've known many people who have had an amazing experience teaching - even I did it, as the "Godly Play" (K-1) Sunday school teacher ay my church. Makes me think Teach for America should be better funded.

    Oh, and everyone should thank me: I resisted the temptation to add "The Axelotl Song" to this post. You all remember that one: "Salamander! Salamander! Salamander! Lalalala!"

  6. I've been self-employed for virtually all of my life, as an attorney and as a writer. My father had his own business (he worked with his brother and his father; they owned an insurance agency and later added a travel agency). All of my mother's brothers owned their own stores (one eventually also had a downtown parking lot), and my mom's father had a taxi company. I guess it's a family thing, but I have no idea how to work for anyone else.

    I don't know if I like this or not. I like it when it is working, when I feel like I am accomplishing something and when I am getting paid. I hate it when it gets routine, or when I have to coax/pull payments out of people.

    I have had a few short-term jobs, and I do know the worst job I ever had-- two weeks during the summer I was 17, working the night shift in a corn canning factory. It was dirty, smelly, sticky, and I didn't eat corn for the next twenty years.

  7. I have been lucky enough to have several great jobs, including dress buyer for a small chain of stores in the 70's (glamorous, but paid zilch); teaching sewing to kids and adults, out of my home studio; designing kitchens and bathrooms; lecturing at sewing shows with my books on teaching sewing and how to have a sewing business; and sewing editor of an online crafts catalog/magazine. The last was probably the best, although it went down in flames with the dotcom bust. But i worked from home, emailing and teleconferencing daily with nine other editors (including ones for quilting, knitting, kids'crafts, painting, decorative arts, and others I can't remember), and the publisher. The publisher and two of the editors lived in British Columbia; the rest of us were scattered around the US, and we all worked together for months before we met in person. It was a high-energy gig, doing things online that had never been tried before, and it was so sad when the investors got scared and pulled the plug. Many of us still keep in touch, 14 years later.

  8. As much as I've spent the last four (five?!) years beating my head against a brick wall trying to find full-time employment (no one cares to hire a 50+ woman who's been out of the work force for several years, no matter how current my computer skills), I've finally (almost?!) settled into contentment with my current "portfolio career": writing, editing, teaching, and supporting the Antioch Writers' Workshop as assistant director. Lots of juggling, but it truly is the best job I've ever had - especially when I compare it to that six months on the factory production line between leaving college and getting married!

  9. My most rewarding job was teaching reading and writing workshops to 4th and 5th graders. I remember stripping all the adjectives from the first paragraph of GWTW and having the kids substitute their own words. Hilarious! lots of leather and chains.

  10. Happy Labor Day, everyone! Internet is spotty in Brooklyn and it seems my computer has died, so I'll be on intermittently........

  11. My best job would be as a portfolio writing coach for fourth grade students and later for high school seniors. During my five year stint with the fourth graders, I worked mostly with students who were labeled learning disabled and those resistant to the conformity of the education system. I loved these kids, and in helping them learn to express themselves, I was privileged to hear stories that broke my heart and ones that lifted my spirits. So many of these kids were just waiting for someone to listen to them and acknowledge that their lives and stories had value. Many of these children had already been labeled as difficult or low-achieving, and as often is the case, kids will live up or down to expectations. I felt very protective of the students with whom I worked.

    I also worked with high school seniors on writing portfolios, and, again, their stories are the stuff of which perseverance is made. At this stage of their lives, the students had encountered the sting of the social order and harshness of a world in which they had to fend for themselves. I sometimes wondered how certain students were able to even function with the baggage they inherited. My job was as much about encouragement for their future as it was in helping them with their writing.

    So, those two jobs were the best because they were the most rewarding, and I learned the most from them. Writing portfolios are no longer state mandated in Kentucky, and although most students hated the requirement and teacher were at times reduced to hair-pulling, I lament the loss of helping students to find their voice and express their feelings on paper.

  12. Julia, thanks for the "Let's All Go to the Movies" video. Boy, is that an instant time machine to my childhood! One of the perks of the family business was that we got lots of free movie passes:-)

    And woo hoo, congrats, Hank!!!! Almost done??

  13. My best and most loved and rewarding job... being a parent.

  14. Best job I ever had? Why being a nurse of course. From delivering babies on the Navajo reservation to working in hospice, there can be no greater privilege than attending both the beginning and the ending of life. I had the honor to witness the transformation from one state of being to another, to be in the presence of a miracle. It is proof of God.

  15. fantastic to hear about all this job satisfaction (except for the corn canning factory--ugh!)

    Hope you are launching September with something delicious to read and to eat!

  16. Most fun job? In high school, one of my BFF's and I worked in an ice-cream store. One of the job perks was all-you-could-eat-ice-cream. So I got paid to work with my best friend, and eat ice cream. Incredible.

    I also loved my job as asst in the school Media Center. I talked to kids about books. All day. What could have been better? I had to leave that job becaus it did not pay but I looked forward to going to work every day.

  17. My current job, leading a team of technical writers, is the worst job I've ever had... except for all the others.

    I've had much more rewarding experiences as a volunteer, especially coaching kids' soccer and basketball.

  18. I've always needed variety in work. Too much focus on one thing was boring. Practically this has usually meant that I needed more than one job at a time. My best job year was my second year of graduate school when I had four part-time jobs. I was assistant to the technical librarian identifying books, another at one of the school's museums where I identified indigenous artifacts for repatriation to tribes, live-in counselor at the medical school, and one where I helped a family therapist develop his private practice. That was my best job year.

    After that I had to narrow it down, because the job with medical students expanded and developed, eventually becoming my career. That one job had more than enough variety, but I kept my outside counseling and psychotherapy work going, because I loved it.

    Now I write. Endless variety there…

  19. Hank! I am in awe. Congratulations on hitting 99,000 words!