One-Liner Wednesday: Inspiration for Writers

“If there’s a book you really want to read but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”

–Toni Morrison

* This post was created as part of Linda G. Hill’s One-Liner Wednesday series. I posted this quote because recently I’ve been putting together ideas for a book I plan to write; I’d been searching for a book on a specific topic but couldn’t find exactly what I wanted, and that’s when this familiar quote popped into my mind. Although I’d heard it many times over the years, in that moment it took on special significance. I’m hoping that sharing it here will be a helpful reminder for other writers, too!

Three Surprisingly Easy Ways to Improve Your Language-Learning

Have you ever studied another language, only to hit a wall you can’t seem to get past in terms of your comprehension? I have too; I studied French and Spanish from junior high school through college, and beyond on my own, yet I’ve gotten rusty in both and struggle to really speak and understand either the way I feel I should by now.

But I’ve come up with a few strategies to improve my abilities in both languages, and wanted to share them with you in the hopes you’ll benefit from them too.

I’m not talking about the common tips, like to practice, practice, practice — sure, do that whenever possible. But we already know that, yet many of us still struggle to get to an intermediate level in our language(s) of study.

I also won’t suggest classes — again, nothing wrong with that approach, but I’m assuming that many of us have gone that route already but need help breaking past the classroom-level of proficiency. See, formal, structured lessons often involve learning by rote (think verb conjugations like hablo, hablas, habla, hablamos…). But when it comes to being able to pick up more off-the-cuff forms of communications, it’s not as easy — at least it hasn’t been for me.

Besides, I’m also making another assumption that, like me, you may be unable or unwilling to spend a lot of time and/or money on formal education, one-on-one tutors and so on.

Well, I believe we don’t have to. Right now I’ve been looking for little ways to incorporate my target languages into my daily life, and here’s what’s been working for me so far:

I. I’ve changed my display languages on everything I can think of, from my Kindle to my web browser. I’ve set most of them to French, since I’m weaker in that language. I really like this strategy because I already have an idea of what the prompts mean from having read them in English for so long, yet now seeing them in French teaches me new words I don’t know yet but should.

For instance, in searching for my trash bin in my Gmail account, I realized it was in the area marked “corbeille.” That didn’t sound like the word “trash” to me, so it prompted me to Google it; I found that it meant “little basket.”

Which I found adorable — definitely much more pleasant-sounding than “trash!”

But most importantly, now I know the word for “basket,” which is a word I probably never would have thought to look up otherwise but one I think is common enough to be very useful.

This strategy also helps me review terms I do know but may have forgotten; for instance, when I go to the area where my sent messages are, I see that they’re called “messages envoyés.” This reminds me that the verb “to send” in French is envoyer. Pretty handy verb to keep in mind, I’d say!

Google chrome language settings CROPPED

In Google Chrome, you can set your preferred language(s) and turn off automatic translation options in the “advanced” settings area.

II. I read websites, blogs and books in my target languages. I’m surprised by how many language-learners have only read educational books in their language of study; after formal classes end, they read no more.

Granted, many people also don’t read much at all, even in their native language. But I love to — so recently I decided to do some of that reading in French and Spanish. It’s even easier to do now what with the proliferation of affordable e-books.

I do choose somewhat simple books; I’m not talking about reading translations of Shakespeare. Not ready for that!

What I do is think of subjects I enjoy reading about — let’s say heath and careers. I then type these terms in French or Spanish into Amazon so my book results come up in my preferred languages.

I should note here that before doing this, I often have to do a Google search for a translation of the subject I’m interested in, like when I wanted to search for tips on a healthy life. I forgot the word for “healthy” in French is “saine” and Googled that first so I could do my Amazon search. Just FYI!

I then preview my matches using the “Look Inside” feature to get a sense of whether a particular book is just challenging enough to be educational for me, while also not being so difficult I’m looking up every single word. I also make sure to choose books that seem to have an interesting flow and approach; I know if I choose a boring text, I’ll never read it and defeat the whole purpose.

A while back, I also bought French-English and Spanish-English dictionaries for my Kindle. That way, when I read books in French and Spanish and come across a word I really can’t figure out, I just highlight it for its translation, much as you can get definitions of English words using the Kindle’s built-in English dictionary. The translation function is just as easy, once you download the language dictionary you need and go to your settings to make it the default dictionary for that particular language. (FYI, I went with this one for French and this one for Spanish; others I’d checked had reviews saying they didn’t work properly as default dictionaries. In those cases, you’d have the book on your Kindle just like any other book, but the ability to quickly translate a specific word as you read would not be functional.)

I love this aspect of reading foreign language e-books so much; I remember how tedious it used to be to have a physical dictionary on hand for every unknown word, but with an e-reader, the answers are right there so you don’t have to lose your flow or forego the chance to properly learn a new word!

Incidentally, I would have thought it would be possible to just search Amazon for “health books in French” or to type “health” and click a language option, but I haven’t found that to be the case. So, this is why I go about my search this way.

On a related note, I don’t recommend going to the international sites of Amazon, like French Amazon at if you plan to download French books to a Kindle for example; from what I’ve read, you might encounter problems since some books are licensed for use in specific countries. So if you try to use Amazon France for that in the U.S., it won’t work for some books. Plus I believe you may have some payment conversion issues and whatnot. I’ve never tried this though, so if I’m wrong and you know doing this has worked for you, do share!

Another reading tip, albeit on a smaller scale: I also follow Twitter users and media sources who post in French and Spanish. While I’m not the best connection for them since I struggle to respond and comment meaningfully in those languages, I do enjoy reading their updates and find that this helps me pick up more casual forms of communication.

III. I look for shows I can watch in other languages. I prefer doing this online instead of via TV since it’s easier to find what I’m looking for, including some programs that are made specifically for language learners yet aren’t the kind of dry lessons that we often get from traditional classroom learning.

My preference is to watch news segments, because I can often get a sense of what’s being said through the visual cues and context even when I can’t catch or understand every single word. I learn and retain new words much better this way versus reading a vocabulary list and trying to remember it. That works only up to a point for me.

On a related note, I find native speakers often speak too fast for me to understand; this happens to me often with Spanish shows. So, when I’m having a hard time finding a show that’s a good pace for me, or let’s say it’s late and I’m a bit tired, sometimes I’ll watch a show aimed at older kids. I find characters on these shows speak a bit slower yet still provide a good lesson in vocabulary and sentence construction.

Well, that about rounds up my top three tips for improving my language skills. Between a mix of research and trial and error, I’ve found these strategies have been helping me. I hope they help you as well!

Entertaining History: Nintendo & Hanafuda

So a few years back I’d picked up a cheap copy of Nintendo’s 2006 Clubhouse Games for the Nintendo DS, a couple of years after it had come out.

Clubhouse Games

Now, at first glance, this game just seemed like a somewhat run-of-the-mill multi-game release featuring a wide range of classic games like Solitaire, Checkers, Backgammon, Dominoes and a variety of others — conveniently all in one cartridge. It was the kind of game I liked to have for when I went on trips like work conferences and was bored in transit.

But it turned out to be much more than that, for me at least. Besides the fact that it has been the best multi-game release I’ve played due to its variety, in-depth instructions and excellent gameplay, it also introduced me to a game I’d never played before. One I eventually fell in love with.

I’m talking about Koi-Koi.

Koi-Koi, according to this Nintendo’s game rules, “is a version of the Japanese card game Hanafuda.” The rules go on to state that “Nintendo got its start manufacturing Hanafuda cards in the late 1800s.” As for gameplay, the basic goal in Koi-Koi is to “create pairs of the same suit using the cards in your hand and the shared cards.” Kind of like what you do in Texas Hold ‘Em poker, using a combination of cards dealt to you as well as the community cards.

But I have to admit that I wasn’t too keen on learning Koi-Koi at first, even though I found it interesting that Nintendo had started so long ago as a manufacturer of these cards instead of in the 1980s with video games as I’d assumed.

No, my instinct had been to use this Nintendo release to play games I already knew and liked, even though I did find the Hanafuda cards pretty and unique. Here’s what a few of the cards look like, to give you an idea; this picture comes from an Amazon listing for one of Nintendo’s Hanafuda decks of cards (which they still make):

Nintendo hanafuda cards

Luckily, Clubhouse Games had a “stamp” play mode that required a player to play each game at least 3 times before you could access the next game; so if you wanted to play Backgammon, you had to have cleared previous games like Checkers and Chinese Checkers first. Although I didn’t have to play this mode (I could have stuck with “free play” which lets you choose whatever you want right away), I tend to want to make use of all included features on any game I buy — at the very least, I like to give it a shot. Plus doing so unlocks other benefits, like new designs and music.

I’m a video game geek, yes. But then, you might already know that.

Anyway, once I got to the Koi-Koi phase of “stamp” mode, I “played” it by randomly clicking cards just to hurry along the process until I could lose three times (you only have to play, not win) and be able to progress past it. As I did so, I found myself growing to like the cards and their artistic beauty the more I saw them, since each game of Koi-Koi lasts twelve hands. But still not eager to learn an unfamiliar game at the time, I kept clicking away until I was able to move past Koi-Koi and eventually complete all of “stamp” mode.

But next up was “mission” mode, where a player has to reach a few particular milestones in each game to proceed; in Hanafuda, one goal was to earn 150 points. Clearly, randomly clicking wasn’t going to work now since I actually had to win. Since I didn’t want to give up so close to beating all components of Clubhouse Games, that meant actually reading the rules in full and understanding the nuances of the gameplay and the scoring. At least now I was familiar with what the cards looked like.

As I did so, I found myself marveling at pretty much everything about Hanafuda, down to its name — which, by the way, charmingly means “flower cards.” I loved the organization and design of the cards; there are 12 sets of 4 cards each which represent every month of the year. Kind of like how Western cards have suits; well, in Hanafuda, the depictions of each month makes for the equivalent of a suit.

Images for each month vary but all share a common theme that ties in with what happens in nature during that time of year. For instance, since cherry blossoms bloom in March, the March cards all feature images with cherry blossoms. (See why they’re called flower cards?) Here’s an example of one of the March cards, from a physical deck I later purchased:

March cherry blossom scroll card

I don’t know what the scroll says, but you don’t need to in order to play.

I was inspired to find out more about these cards and discovered sites like with great info on the variations of gameplay, helpful tips and even a Flash-based version of the game you can play online for free. (Check it out if you’d like to play a practice game or two; although I prefer the gameplay in Nintendo’s Clubhouse Games, this one is decent.)

Incidentally, if you’d like to see what each month’s theme is, check out this link from that website. And here on the Hanafuda site you can see a side-by-side comparison between each month’s theme and a picture of its source of inspiration from nature, since at first glance it can be hard to recognize what each scene is representing from the cards alone.

I didn’t stop there. Now I was really curious about how Nintendo had started out making these cards in the 1800s. Since I love reading about how major businesses got started, especially ones I personally like, I decided to read up on Nintendo.

I came across Playing to Wiin: Nintendo and the Video Game Industry’s Greatest Comeback, by Daniel Sloan, published by Wiley in 2011.

Playing to Wiin

This was a very interesting read throughout, and I loved the information I found out about Hanafuda cards through this book, such as this trivia:

“Fusajiro Yamauchi…launched ‘Nintendo Koppai’ in September 1889 as a hanafuda card business. Fusajiro saw Kyoto’s gamblers as well as its landed elite, students, and laborers as yearning for the turn of a friendly, well-made card. The city had been home to Japan’s emperors from the 8th century into the 19th, but like the entire nation it had endured a ban on card gambling for about 250 years. The new Meiji Era government, as a sign of its progressive agenda, decided to allow card games using pictures instead of numbers — one of many changes under a new Constitution that included weightier moves such as national elections and the end of serfdom. With the end of the card-playing prohibition, Fusajiro had a ready market for his ‘flower cards,’ which stunned players with their beauty.”    

As time passed and I was reading the book, my interest in Hanafuda kept growing, and before I knew it, I was officially hooked. I began playing Koi-Koi on Clubhouse Games on a regular basis, now eschewing most of the other games on the cartridge in favor of it. I played as I ate breakfast; I played in bed before falling asleep.

I was addicted.

Soon I decided I wanted my own “real life” deck, and went with this one made by Nintendo and sold on Amazon; this is where the cherry blossom card pictured above came from.

I also read Game Over: How Nintendo Conquered the World, by David Sheff, published by Vintage in 2011.

Game Over

According to Sheff:

“In the absence of horse or dog racing or sports pools, the yakuza, Japan’s equivalent of the Mafia, operated high-stakes games of hanafuda in casino-like parlors.”

I got a kick out of the cards’ somewhat less-than-respectable beginnings; quite a contrast with their pretty, innocent look! Which I suppose was the whole point, in a way. Who would ever suspect these cards of being associated with anything illegal?

Sure enough, an especially intriguing account of Hanafuda’s origins comes from the history section of the website — here’s a little more background on how the cards came into existence and were used for gambling:

“Hanafuda’s most obvious predecessor is actually the Portuguese Hombre deck, which was the first 48-card deck to appear in Japan. Portuguese traders and missionaries arrived in Japan in the 16th century, and were quick to invite the locals to participate in their card games. Prior to the arrival of the first European traders, the Japanese used playing cards almost exclusively for recreation, but the gambling card games preferred by the Portuguese visitors quickly gained popularity among the natives. The Japanese government saw the danger in this new hobby and quickly banned private gambling. Less than a century later, when Japan instituted its new isolationist policy, all foreign playing cards became illegal. As a result, Japanese card fans abandoned the Westernized designs of the Hombre deck in favor of their own homemade decks depicting Japanese characters and scenes. What they retained was the original 48-card design of the Hombre deck, and a penchant for gambling. Over time, the images became more uniform so a standardized set of rules could be developed, but as the government banned one deck after another for being gambling-oriented, card players had to become more clever in their deck designs. In this way, the original hanafuda deck was designed in the late 18th century. Its use of image association instead of an obvious point system made it more government-friendly.”

Aha! So the cards’ simple nature scenes really were designed to camouflage their true use! Clever indeed.

The book Introduction to Japanese Culture, by Daniel Sosnoski, published by Tuttle Publishing in 2013, also discusses the non-Japanese origin of hanafuda cards:

“A fact that surprises many of its devoted fans, however, is that hanafuda was not a Japanese invention at all…hanafuda was actually a Western import.”

Intro to Japanese Culture

Sosnoski states that “the ‘flower card’ game was first introduced to Japan in the late sixteenth century by Dutch traders at Nagaski,” and “underwent a number of changes and regional variations in the following centuries” — but ultimately, “it has become so much a part of the culture that most Japanese think of it as their own.”

In the book, Sosnoski also touches on the gambling side of Hanafuda cards as well; apparently the use of these cards for gambling continues even to the present day:

“Today hanafuda is like poker in most parts of the United States: recreational games are permitted, although betting, even in penny-ante games, is technically illegal. Of course there are those who cannot resist playing for big stakes. Every year the newspapers report at least half a dozen cases in which police raided a secret hanafuda parlor and arrested the players.”

When I first saw Hanafuda on Clubhouse Games, I never would have guessed that there was a gambling underworld associated with these beautiful cards — both in the past and today!

Yet in Things Japanese: Everyday Objects of Exceptional Beauty and Significance, published by Tuttle Publishing in 2014, author Nicholas Bornoff confirms “that hanafuda has always been prized by serious gamblers.”

Things Japanese

And back on the history link of, it’s reported that the word yakuza, the Japanese term associated with crime and gangsters, was first related to the Japanese word for a bad hand in a Hanafuda gambling game. In fact, the site says that “many yakuza tattoos have been inspired by images from the flower cards.”

Wow. I thought I was just playing a cute card game from Japan.

I had no idea I was such a badass.

All jokes aside, I love when seemingly simple forms of entertainment, or anything really, turn out to have an unexpected history behind them, so I figured I’d share this one with you.

By the way, you can play lots of different games with Hanafuda cards besides Koi-Koi. If you’d like to learn more about the cards and the various popular games you can play with them, I recommend the book Hanafuda: The Flower Card Game, which features thorough instructions as well as helpful illustrations for a variety of Hanafuda games. Written and published by Japan Publications, it was first released in the 1970s and has been reprinted over the years; the one I have is the 15th edition from November 2010 (below):

Hanafuda the Flower Card Game

Also, if you’d like to own a set for yourself but prefer cards with point values on them for ease in scoring, you may want to go with a Hawaiian deck. Hanafuda is popular in Hawaii, and cards there typically feature point values on the faces of each card. Here’s an example. On a related note, the game is also popular in Korea (where it’s referred to as Hwa-tu) and a Korean deck features a few extra cards.

I’d say trying Hanafuda for yourself is worth it, if you haven’t yet — and it’s the closest you’ll get to being one of the yakuza gambling in a casino parlor in 1880s Japan.

It’s like playing with a piece of history. And who said history can’t be fun?

Opinion: Don’t Dismiss Amazon’s Fire Phone Just Yet

In today’s news, it was reported that the price of the still relatively new Amazon Fire Phone has been slashed to just 99 cents. Yes, CENTS. Here, see for yourself.

It should be noted that that’s the price if you take a two-year contract with AT&T, the phone’s exclusive provider. Still, that’s a steep markdown considering the phone launched just a couple of months ago in July at a price of 199 DOLLARS with a two-year AT&T contract.

The TV report I saw said that this drastic price cut appears to be in response to poor sales of the phone, saying it has been “struggling.”

I have some thoughts on this “struggling” product, which I feel shouldn’t be dismissed just yet — I think we may one day be surprised by its longevity and eventual popularity.

First, some background

I don’t own the phone, although I have been intrigued about buying it for two reasons. First of all, I like Amazon and their products; for example, I own their Kindle PaperWhite and find it great. So I’d be open to a phone made by them. Secondly, I don’t currently own a smartphone; I still have an old flip phone. (Stop laughing!) So for me, this would be a fine transition into the smartphone realm.

However, I do see that people who already have a smartphone won’t necessarily be compelled to switch. The Fire Phone’s operating system is a custom-built version of an Android system, so it doesn’t offer the full spectrum of Android functionality; for instance, from what I’ve read, you can’t use many popular Google apps and services on it.

According to this article by Ryan Whitwam for Extreme Tech, “When you buy a Fire Phone, you get Amazon’s services in place of Google’s. That means no Chrome, Play Store, Google Play Music, Google Drive, or Gmail. Instead you get Silk Browser, Amazon Appstore, Cloud Player, Cloud Drive, and Amazon’s generic email client.”

Clearly, this makes the Fire Phone less than appealing to customers who are used to a full-fledged Android operating system and enjoy these Google services, or those with an iPhone and the wide range of apps and services available on that system as well.

Once you add in the fact that customers would have to use AT&T, you can see why the Fire Phone does have some issues; I know I personally prefer Verizon, so this aspect alone has been a major reason why I decided against movin’ on up into the smartphone world with this phone even though I was initially excited by it. So it’s even more understandable to me why someone who already has one, especially if they’re not already an AT&T customer, would hesitate to make this change.

Advertising fail?

I also didn’t like Amazon’s advertising strategy for the Fire Phone at first. Have you seen the commercials for it, featuring pretentious kids schooling adults around them about how great it is? If not, here’s one of them, from the Fire Phone’s YouTube channel:

When I first saw these ads, I thought, “Does Amazon really want its phone to be considered a kids’ phone?”

Think again

Yet think of this advertising strategy in light of what Apple did over the years to position itself as a leader in the tech industry: early in its history, and even today, Apple has made deals with schools to provide them with computer equipment for free. This has been a great charitable move on their part, but let’s be honest — there’s also a benefit to them as well. They’ve wanted Apple to be familiar to kids in order to plants the roots for a strong customer base in the years to come; their view from the outset was that the system you first learn on is likely to be the one you’ll buy later on. This approach has been well-documented; take a look at this article by Todd Oppenheimer in The Atlantic, which mentions how Apple “shrewdly” went about turning “legions of families into Apple loyalists” with strategies like this.

So my guess is that’s what Amazon is striving for, too — gaining customers in the future by planting the seeds now. Step one: target kids in the ads and now slash the price so low there’s really no barrier to getting one. That way, parents are more likely get the phone for their kids — or better yet, kids may proactively start begging their parents for one.

Then, who knows, maybe some parents might actually be more open to switching their own phones once they have exposure to it from their kids; but even without that, those children may one day be loyal Fire Phone customers due to their exposure to it at an early age. I mean, I know I have a fondness for Apple computers to this day from my time learning on an Apple IIe in school! So it just might work, and is likely the best advertising approach Amazon could use at this phase in the Fire Phone’s existence.

It’s not just about the phone

Besides, I don’t think the Fire Phone is supposed to be a powerhouse product on its own, but rather a driver of increased sales for Amazon overall. This fits in with the business approach commonly used by Jeff Bezos of Amazon, who’s always been more focused on long-term standing versus short-term gain. Some examples:

  • Even in Amazon’s early days, Bezos wanted to offer products more cheaply to build a strong customer base, even if it was at a loss to Amazon in the moment.
  • He was also willing to direct customers to other external sites if they searched for a product he didn’t sell; the goal was to make Amazon a customer’s first stop, even if that meant referring them on to other businesses when necessary. (I’ve noticed Amazon still does this to this day, although their inventory has grown so much it’s rarely necessary to be directed to an external site now.)
  • Jeff also allowed customers to post negative reviews of products before anyone else did so; people found that shocking at the time, saying it would adversely affect the site’s business, but Jeff wanted customers to view Amazon as a place they could trust buying from, as well as a one-stop-shop where they could both research and purchase the right product for them.

Amazon has also sold its hardware, like its Kindle e-readers and tablets, relatively cheaply; the focus has typically been on gaining customers and purchases for accompanying electronic books and services versus on sales of the hardware itself. Similarly, its Fire Phone offers Firefly which makes it easier to identify and purchase products directly from Amazon; you can read more on that feature in this CNN article by Doug Gross, which confirms this approach and says that “the Fire Phone is designed to pull you into Amazon’s growing universe of products and services and then keep you there.”

So to me, the Fire Phone is just another example of Amazon hardware being offered at low prices in order to boost its sales in other areas. This makes the phone a win-win situation for Amazon; I can see loyal Amazon customers enjoying that benefit, and Amazon is positioned to really benefit from that convenience to the customer. The phone becomes just one small part in its overall strategy to increase sales even further.

Plus, down the line I wouldn’t be surprised if Amazon’s phone offers better features than it does currently, much like the evolution of the Kindle, which took years to develop and improve.

Incidentally, if you’d like to read more all about Amazon’s growth and strategies over the years, in addition to the linked articles here I highly recommend reading One Click: Jeff Bezos and the Rise of by Richard L. Brandt. I learned a lot about Amazon’s history and sales practices from this book, plus it’s an interesting read as well.

So, don’t dismiss the Fire Phone just yet. It may seem to be “struggling,” but that’s only if you look at it in black-and-white terms, on a standalone basis. I believe it has some tricks up its sleeve that may just position it for long-term success in ways many might not expect — and besides, it’s just one part of Amazon’s overall, big-picture approach for ongoing growth in the future.

Coincidence, or Something More?

I recently read comedian Jim Breuer’s book, I’m Not High: (But I’ve Got a Lot of Crazy Stories About Life as a Goat Boy, a Dad, and a Spiritual Warrior), published by Gotham Books in 2010.

Jim Breuer book from Amazon

I was surprised by this book’s depth and insights. Not that I didn’t think Jim Breuer was capable of that, but I assumed his material would be like those of many comedians who release books which include a lot of jokes and focus on their rise to fame in a straightforward, biographical way.

While Jim’s book does have funny material and describes his path in comedy and entertainment, there is a refreshing amount of introspective, thoughtful commentary about his personal life. I loved that aspect so much that I ended up finishing the book within a couple of days, despite the fact that the book isn’t super-short (it’s hard to specify length based on reading the Kindle version pictured here, but in print it would be close to 275 pages, according to Amazon).

In this post, I wanted to share two stories from his book which were especially moving; they also teach a lesson that we can all apply to our own lives.

The first one involves how he got to know Chris Farley, who had guested on an episode of Saturday Night Live while Jim was a member of the cast. (Chris had of course been a cast member of SNL himself but had since left by this point.)

While they’d been getting along well enough during the preparations for the episode, Jim was surprised to receive a call from Chris on Thursday of the week Chris was working on that weekend’show; during the call, Chris seemed down and kept asking him to hang out, yet Jim wasn’t even sure how he’d gotten his number. Jim didn’t join him that night but describes being compelled to contact him a few week’s after Chris’ guest-hosting episode:

“I started getting an overwhelming urge to call Chris….I couldn’t get him out of my mind. Still, I’d ultimately talk myself out of it…But the feeling would return.”

Finally, Jim decided to ask his manager to get him Chris’ number so he could see how he was doing.

The next week came and he still hadn’t heard back, though, so towards the end of the week he called his manager again, who apologized and said he’d get him the number by Monday. But, as Jim writes:

“He never got me the number. He’s not to blame.

Chris died the next day. I don’t want you to think that I feel like I am personally to blame or that I’m narcissistic enough to think what happened to Chris directly relates to me. I believe only that I had a chance. I had an opportunity to reach out to help. Would it have done any good? Who knows? I know only that God was telling me to reach out to another human being. I felt it, and I truly heard it loud and clear, and I ignored it. I will never turn my back on Him again…I dropped to my knees and apologized for turning my back and not acting on the messages that were sent to me.  

I know it feels weird and kooky and surreal. And we are conditioned to tune out or fear that kind of stuff. I’m here to say, ‘Don’t.’ You can make a difference. And when the big man gives you that urge, do yourself a favor and at least just give it a shot.”

I was impressed that Jim would share that personal story considering how it must pain him to this day, both because Chris died so young but especially because Jim hadn’t gotten a chance to speak to him before he passed despite his pressing desire to do so. I appreciate his intent to encourage his readers to listen to messages like these and, hopefully, avoid a missed chance like this.

Another story in his book was equally touching, involving a time relatively early in his career when he finally received word he’d gotten a part on the TV show Uptown Comedy Club. On the night Jim got the news, the first person he wanted to call was his brother Eddie, who’d also been a big supporter of his as Jim was starting out in comedy.

That night, by the time Jim had gotten to his then-fiancée Dee’s apartment, it was late. However, he still felt a strong desire to call Eddie with the news since he knew Eddie would be thrilled. So, he started to dial him from Dee’s phone, but was then interrupted:

“‘Who are you calling?’ she asked. ‘It’s late.’

‘Eddie,’ I said, cradling the receiver on my shoulder. ‘I got the show!’

‘You did?’ She smiled. ‘Awesome!’ Then she clicked the base of the phone and hung up the call. ‘Eddie’s got three kids,’ she said.

‘Dee,’ I said, ‘I’m going to be on TV! Real TV!’

‘It can wait until morning. That’s only five hours from now,’ Dee said. ‘Call him at six thirty A.M., he’ll be up early.’

‘All right, all right, all right,’ I said disgustedly. ‘I just really want him to know tonight. I’m one less person he’s gotta worry about, Dee.’

‘He’ll be so happy to hear that,’ she said. ‘In the morning!’”

Only Jim never did get to tell him that in the morning because Eddie died overnight.

Jim and Dee received a call at 5:30 a.m. with the news from Denise, Jim’s niece, who said Eddie had had a heart attack.

Jim describes Eddie’s sudden passing as gutting, and he was particularly shocked about the timing of Eddie’s death:

“I learned from Denise that he’d passed around one fifteen A.M., right around the time I would have been calling him…Do you call that a coincidence? I could have done any number of things after learning I got the TV show, but calling Eddie after one A.M. was at the top of the list…something compelled me to call at that particular time. Why? Don’t ask me. I know I couldn’t have prevented Eddie from dying, but something compelled me to reach out.”

I found this story especially powerful, perhaps because it involved a member of his own family, one he’d been close to. I could only imagine how painful losing him was, particularly when he’d had him on his mind at the very moment of his passing.

I also found it admirable of Jim to realize he couldn’t have prevented what happened. It’s hard to have that kind of clarity when a loss like this happens. I mean, I know if it had been me in Jim’s position I would have wondered if Eddie could have been saved by my call, whether directly or indirectly.

Like if Jim had been able to speak to him, maybe Jim would have heard him begin to have a heart attack and been able to call 911 and send an ambulance over? I mean, assuming Eddie had been able to pick up the phone and begin talking, with the heart attack happening as they were on the phone?

Or even if Jim had called a minute or so after the heart attack, perhaps the ringing phone would have woken Eddie’s family up and they would have noticed something was wrong with him, perhaps with time to get an ambulance there for help?

Even if Eddie surely couldn’t have been saved, I’d still have regrets: for instance, assuming Jim and Eddie would have only talked briefly, with the heart attack occurring a few minutes afterwards with no one knowing until it was too late — at least then Jim would have had the chance to connect with his brother and share some good news with him before he died. Almost as a parting thank you for all the help Jim says Eddie gave him over the years, advising him on career moves, offering guidance on contracts and agent issues…if it were me, I wouldn’t be able to stop wishing I had made that call. Could we have spoken one last time?

I don’t know, I guess it’s not productive to ruminate on questions like these, but it’s so hard not to when something like this happens.

What I do know is, I wouldn’t have been OK with anyone hanging up a phone on me as I was dialing, especially if the person I was trying to call ended up passing away before I got to speak to them again. I know technically I could redial, so if I allowed myself to be convinced not to it wouldn’t be fair to blame what happened on another person. For the record, Jim doesn’t do that with Dee and I think that makes him a greater person than I am! Because if it had been me, I think there’s a good chance I’d still always resent that person for keeping me from talking to a loved one in what would have turned out to be their last moments.

And if I did eventually forgive that aspect and own up to my own role in it, I’m pretty sure it would take me some time to come to that conclusion. Probably so long that the other person now wouldn’t be able to forgive me for how long it took me to process what had happened.

How would you react in a situation like this? And do you believe, as Jim does, that these moments were more than just coincidence?

This post was created as part of Stream of Consciousness Saturday; this week’s writing prompt was, “end your post with a question. Extra points if you fit an exclamation mark somewhere in the body of your post.” I am happy to say I did accomplish both goals! However, the rules also say there should be “no editing, (typos can be fixed) and minimal planning on what you’re going to write.” While I didn’t edit my own words beyond typos, I did think for a while about writing on this topic since I liked the book a lot and wanted to pose some questions about it to readers. Hope that and the fact that I have quotes from another work in my post is OK! 🙂  

Confessions of a Book Addict

I think I may officially be addicted to books.

The thought dawned on me when I read this article about a woman trying to pare down her book collection, especially since she’d just gotten an e-reader. I’ve been trying to do the same, since I too have had my beloved Kindle PaperWhite for over a year, but have still been having the hardest time doing it. That’s when I realized that I just might have a problem. Maybe I love books, and reading overall, too much. In fact, ever since getting my Kindle, I read even more than I used to.

Getting this Kindle really kicked my reading addiction up a notch.

“User” indeed: getting this Kindle really kicked my reading addiction up a notch.

But is it really possible to be addicted to something like reading?

To find out, I did some research (of a very scientific variety: I Googled “what is an addiction?”). I came across an article from Psychology Today which said that an addiction can involve an activity “that can be pleasurable but the continued use of which becomes compulsive and interferes with ordinary life responsibilities, such as work or relationships, or health.”

Hmm. I think all of these criteria apply to me and reading. I mean, I haven’t lost a job because of it, but I have stayed up late reading on work nights, finding myself dragging through the next day as a result. That has to affect the quality of my work; for instance, it may explain why I’ve made typos such as calling a colleague named Tony “Tiny” in an email. (On a side note: I saw my typo right as I clicked “send” on the message, but hoped he wouldn’t notice it. Oh, but he did; while he didn’t acknowledge it, he corrected his name back to “Tony” in my email below his response. Made me laugh and feel bad at the same time, since my typo clearly bothered him!)

I’ve also neglected returning calls or responding to friends’ emails and text messages because I’ve gotten too caught up in my reading, whether it be a book or online articles and blogs, intending to read for just a few more minutes but then finding an hour or more has passed without me noticing.

The health factor applies too, since reading is a sedentary activity — I’m sad to say I don’t have one of these neat treadmill desks, and not just because of its cost, but also because of the space it would take up and the noise it would make in my small, old apartment building with its thin walls, floors and ceilings. (I once had a stationary bike that I thought would be quiet enough to use at home, but no; the neighbors downstairs banged up to me. Same thing happened when I’d play music at a normal level. My goal, though, is to be able to get one of these in the future, if I move to a house or ground-floor apartment.)

So this means time spent reading is time spent not being as active as I could be, although I do try to squeeze reading in during times when I’m already sitting, like in transit on the bus or train. I tell myself that helps minimize the amount of sitting I’d be doing overall. I did once toy with the idea of taking a book to the gym I’d joined, but it was usually too crowded there to use each machine for long; plus I’d need to walk at a slow pace while reading, which is not ideal for a workout. No, to me reading while walking is better done at home with a treadmill desk, which can be used for long stretches in order to minimize the effects of sitting.

Signs of an Addiction

I also looked up common signs of an addiction and came across the website for the Promises Treatment Center. According to their list of symptoms of addiction to anything from drugs to activities such as gambling, I really might be a reading addict. Here are a few of the signs I relate to the most:

  • “Noticeable fluctuations in mood.” I actually do get sad when I finish a great book, especially when I don’t have another one lined up that I’m eager to get to — hey, is that like an addict’s search for the next fix? — so, reading definitely can affect my mood.
  • “Loss of interest in activities that they used to enjoy.” It’s true. I once used to like chatting on the phone, watching TV, going to movies, but now…I don’t. At least, not as much as I used to. I mean, I still talk to friends and family on the phone and of course socialize in person, but I don’t spend as much time going out or talking on the phone as I once did. And although I do watch a few select shows on TV, I usually DVR them and then take weeks to get through them. (Not that TV is something we should be watching a ton of, but you get my point.) To be fair, I think all of this is a function of my evolving tastes as I grow older as well as the difficulty of coordinating busy schedules among several people, but a part of me does wonder if my renewed love for/addiction to reading is another significant culprit!
  • “Fluctuations in sleep or energy levels.” As I said above, I have let my reading interfere with my sleep schedule, which can affect how I feel the next day. Actually, it can affect how I feel for days afterwards, since throwing off my sleep pattern makes it hard to sleep at a normal time on subsequent nights, and it becomes a vicious cycle.

Is This Really a Problem, or is it Normal?

I recently read comedian Marc Maron’s second book, Attempting Normal (published by Spiegel & Grau, April 30, 2013). In it, he says he has “hundreds of books” in what he calls “an empire of unread and partially read books.” This amused me, since I too have multiple boxes and shelves of books I’ve read, or mean to read soon.

Marc Maron Attempting Normal book from Amazon

I particularly enjoyed his explanation about why he loves to read so much:

“Reading is like a drug. When I am reading from these books it feels like I am thinking what is being read, and that gives me a rush. That is enough. I glean what I can. I finish some of the unfinished thoughts lingering around in my head by adding the thoughts of geniuses and I build from there.”

This made me feel better about my own passion for reading. I never thought of reading in quite this way, in terms of feeling like I’m thinking the words I’m reading, but it instantly resonated with me as I read it. I do like that about reading! I not only learn from what I read, but the process also feels like I kind of experienced what the author said and described. That might explain why I like to read books about life in other countries; I haven’t gotten to fulfill my desire to travel to places like Japan, for example, but a part of me feels like it’s already familiar to me because I’ve read about it so often.

As I was feeling reassured that maybe my approach to reading isn’t so bad after all, another thought popped into my mind. Maybe Marc Maron and I both suffer from the same addiction — after all, he does call reading a drug! — so I shouldn’t assume I’m okay based on what he wrote. That might be like someone with a dental cavity telling someone else with one that it’s common and nothing to worry about. Having two or more people share the same affliction doesn’t mean things are supposed to be, and stay, that way!

Ultimately, then, I really don’t know what to think about all of this. My instincts tell me to read up on this some more, but that could be the addiction talking.

But you know what? I’m okay with that — missed phone calls, lost sleep, and all.

Fun, Random Trivia

Did you know that sardines aren’t actually a specific kind of fish? I didn’t! It’s just one piece of interesting trivia featured in Leland Gregory’s Stupid History: Tales of Stupidity, Strangeness, and Mythconceptions Through the Ages, originally published in 2007 by Andrews McMeel Publishing.

Stupid History by Leland Gregory from Amazon

Here’s the scoop on sardines, as described in the book:

“…there’s no such fish as a sardine. The name applies to any small fish packed in sardine cans. (They’re usually pilchard or small herring.)”

How have I not known that until now?

And ever wonder why sardines are squeezed so tightly into their cans? The author explains that, too:

“The reason sardines are packed, well, like sardines isn’t because companies are trying to give you your money’s worth — it’s because the oil they’re packed in costs more than the fish themselves.”

I found that very interesting. I actually don’t even eat sardines, but we’ve all heard the expression he alludes to; whenever things are cramped, people remark that they’re packed tighter than sardines in a can. I used to wonder why the companies don’t just use bigger cans — now I know it’s all about the oil! Call me a geek, but I love random trivia like this!

Reading this book interested me in finding out what else Leland Gregory has written; I love real-life stories like this that make me laugh or see things in a new light! Turns out he has a lot of books out! The next one I chose by him was Idiots at Work: Chronicles of Workplace Stupidity (Andrews McMeel Publishing, September 1, 2004). Another entertaining read!

Idiots at Work by Leland Gregory from Amazon

Here’s an amusing part of the book, to give you an idea of the kind of material it covers:

“A fifty-two-year-old man in Calcutta, India, who had applied for a state government job finally got the interview he was hoping for — thirty years later. Ravindra Nath Halder was just a teenager when he applied at a state labor exchange office in West Bengal. More than three decades later, Ravindra, now a grandfather, was very surprised to get the letter saying an interview had been granted for the position. Mohammad Amin, India’s Labor minister, said it often took ‘a long time’ for a person to be called for an interview.”

And you thought it took you a long time to hear back from employers?!

Although, at least this man eventually heard — how many times don’t employers today just ignore applications all together, without even bothering to say, “Thanks, but no thanks!” I mean, of course it’s ludicrous that Ravindra’s application took so long to be responded to, but why employers also feel OK ignoring applicants (often even after they’ve taken time to interview!) has also always bothered me. But that’s a story for another time.

What I like most about Leland Gregory’s writing is that he verifies all the stories he includes in his books. For instance, when I Googled the interview story above, I saw that it had in fact been reported and confirmed by reputable sources like the BBC. (Yes, I had to do a spot check myself. Call me neurotic — because I am!)

So if you too enjoy random trivia and true accounts of silly/nonsensical things that happen in life, I suggest looking up Leland Gregory’s work!

Your Work Shouldn’t Make You Miserable

I recently read Ali Wentworth’s book, Ali in Wonderland: And Other Tall Tales, published by Harper in 2012. It’s another entertaining read, since Ali is a very funny storyteller and shares interesting accounts of her childhood, her marriage to George Stephanopoulos, and much more.

Ali Wentworth book from Amazon

One humorous comment Ali made really stood out to me, when she’s describing a job offer she received and turned down. Her reason?

“…I make it a point not to mix business with non-pleasure.”

I liked that phrasing! And it started me thinking about how, too often, many of us do the opposite, equating work with drudgery and then suffering through miserable jobs when we shouldn’t — sometimes for years and years! It’s one thing to stick it out until you get a better job, but sometimes we resign ourselves long-term to our present circumstances because we think, “Well, this is what work means. The way I’m feeling is how everyone feels.”

What’s funny is, that’s not true — and it certainly doesn’t have to be the case for you! That kind of thinking would be like saying, “Oh, everyone gets a stomachache now and then,” and continuing to eat rotten food.

We do not have to eat rotten food and suffer the consequences!

Now, there is some truth to the fact that work is work; it can’t be all fun and games. But there’s a difference between occasional stresses on the job, and a bad workplace causing you true unhappiness day in and day out. Below are a few of symptoms experienced by me, and others I know, during periods of deep unhappiness professionally. I’d say if you have more than 2 of the following, you should probably re-evaluate your job:

  • You find yourself watching the clock at the end of each work day just waiting to get out of there.
  • You feel despondent on Sunday nights as the new work week looms ahead (if it starts on Monday for you). The dread may even start as early as Sunday afternoon. The effect is magnified tenfold when you’re returning from vacation time off.
  • You find yourself crashing the minute you get home, or throughout most of your weekend, because you’re too mentally and emotionally exhausted during the work week to do much else in your free time.
  • You sometimes actually hope to get sick so you can miss work for a day or two without having to lie about needing a sick day.
  • You find yourself staring longingly at parks and other outdoor spaces you see on your commute to work, wishing you could be one of the people spending time there and not on your way to your own personal hell.
  • You find yourself unexpectedly having flashbacks to happier times; say, you’re at your desk and suddenly an image pops into your mind of a beach you and your family went to years ago.
  • You bitterly resent any “mandatory fun” events your job requires you to attend, like office lunches; haven’t you spent enough soul-crushing time there already to earn a meal to yourself?
  • You devise and cherish ways to steal some time to yourself while at work, whether it’s taking a longer-than-necessary trip to the bathroom, or coming in late on a regular basis when you know it won’t be noticed. You feel like these stolen moments help you get through each day.
  • You find yourself irritable with everyone close to you, particularly when they seem upbeat and cheerful. It’s not that you want them to be unhappy, but you simply cannot match their energy or enthusiasm, so you end up sounding short with them when you don’t mean to. You may not even be able to keep up with their calls and invitations; all your efforts are focused on getting through the workweek and trying to avoid being a downer around others.
  • You find yourself self-medicating with food, alcohol, cigarettes, or excessive amounts of time spent on video games, gambling, online shopping and mindless TV — whatever will turn your mind off and clear it of work dramas and stressors for a while.
  • You’re experiencing more physical ailments than you used to, like headaches or getting sick a lot. You might also have insomnia, or on the flip side, be unable to wake up easily no matter how long you sleep.

This is by no means a complete list; everyone’s reactions to work misery will vary, and one person’s response may differ depending on what phase of the I-hate-my-job situation they’re in.

I know one tell-tale sign for me was getting emotional in public, since I’m not really one to cry, and certainly not in front of others if I can help it! But one day while taking the subway home from jury duty, I actually found myself crying about my particularly miserable administrator job (due to unpleasant co-workers, tedious work, company-wide inefficiencies, a difficult supervisor and a long commute, in case you were wondering). What’s more, I was crying because I’d been happy to be picked for a jury duty case, since we’d been told it would likely last 2 weeks. I was thrilled about the sanctioned break from my miserable job, but suddenly, on just the second day, the case was abruptly settled out of court and we were dismissed.

Losing that 2-week reprieve was the final straw. My mind just couldn’t reconcile having to return to work so soon. On the train ride back from the courthouse, I started crying and couldn’t stop, surprising even myself. This was so not me, and it seemed ludicrous! Who cries about their jobs, and in public, I thought to myself. And who gets sad when jury duty ends? Most people want to avoid it all together! I seriously reacted to the sudden end of my jury duty service the way I imagine some would act if they’d lost their job.

I also felt bad because some people can’t find a job when they need one — I’ve been there and so have many other people I know personally. So I felt like an ingrate. Plus it’s not like my job was back-breaking. Like maybe construction workers would have the right to hate their jobs — have you ever seen them doing intense work outside on a 100-degree day? I don’t know how they do it! Or firefighters. Or waiters and waitresses…hotel housekeepers…you get the idea. They have hard jobs; from the outside, mine could technically have been viewed as a “cushy” office job, complete with air-conditioning and a comfy chair.

But with the help of a good friend, I soon realized what matters is what I feel — not what I should feel. To use another food analogy (I think maybe I’m hungry?), it wouldn’t make sense to tell a lactose-intolerant person they should enjoy a flavor of ice cream that other people have said is delicious. They’re just not made to be able to enjoy it — they either need to find a non-dairy ice cream replacement, or find another dessert option all together.

And that’s what we need to do with our jobs and careers when we know we’re not a match for the kind of work we’re currently doing, or the environment in which we’re doing it. We have to find another way. It’s not likely to magically get better if we stick it out or try to improve it.

Comedian George Wallace made an excellent point along these lines in his book, Laff it Off! (published by Chaite in 2013):

“There ain’t many things that start out crap, then turn out diamonds. You take a crappy job? That job will be crappy till the moment you leave it….Simple rule: if it starts out crappy, it probably ends up crappy.”

George Wallace book from Amazon

He’s so right. Don’t waste months and years in a futile attempt to make your job better if you’re profoundly unhappy there. I don’t just mean minor dissatisfaction; everyone dislikes certain aspects of their job, like maybe the commute is long, but otherwise you’re generally content. Plus in a scenario like that, you might be able to negotiate one day working from home; although that hasn’t been possible on most of my jobs, a friend of mine actually managed to get 2 days working from home for her employer.

No, I’m talking about when multiple problems exist, and the majority of them aren’t in your control, especially when you don’t enjoy the work you do or make use of your strengths on the job. George Wallace makes a good point in this area as well:

“If you find a job that doesn’t honor your essence, you’re going to hate it. You’re going to phone it in. You’re going to leave it or lose it….”

Transitioning into another job or career before you start phoning it in is important. Otherwise, you risk harming your reputation and your chances of getting a good reference later. Don’t let yourself suffer twice over for a job you hate, now and in the long run!

In the case of my miserable job that made me cry over the end of jury duty, I chose the “leave it” route. I never regretted it, even though I actually quit without another job lined up right away. I’d never done something like that before. I knew the Suze Ormans of the world would lambast me for my decision, but it had gotten to the point that leaving was a matter of self-preservation. I figured I would find something eventually, but even if I didn’t, I would have rather moved and made other tradeoffs just to be able to avoid going to that soul-sucking place for another day. I’d been there about a year but had known since the second month it was completely wrong for me. If anything, I regretted waiting so long to leave — and still regret it. Those are months of my life I can never get back. Although I was lucky enough to land another job I was much happier at soon after, I would have never questioned my decision to quit even if that hadn’t happened.

I encourage you to trust your intuition when you too are facing a miserable job; at least spend some time exploring other jobs and career paths you may be able to try. I once heard someone say that people spend more time planning their vacations than they do planning their lives and careers, and I think that’s crazy — yet true. Let’s not do that anymore.

In future posts, I’d like to cover this topic more, particularly more on how we can go about making a change like this, since I think it’s so important. Hopefully you’ll agree and find it helpful!

Awkward Job Interviews – We’ve All Been There

Books of Adam: The Blunder Years, published by Grand Central Publishing on July 9, 2013, is written by Adam Ellis, the writer/artist behind the funny Books of Adam blog. It’s another fun book I recommend, especially if you’re a fan of sites like The Oatmeal and Hyperbole and a Half.

Adam Ellis book from Amazon

The book is based on the Books of Adam blog and has a lot of great material, but my favorite part is Adam’s account of a job interview gone bad — it’s funny and reassuring at the same time, since most of us have bombed an interview and should remember that it’s happened to nearly everyone at some point! I’ll share an account of one of my own bad interviews in a bit, but first here is Adam’s story:

“When I finally landed an interview at a bookstore, it only proved I had more to worry about than simply getting callbacks from employers. Apparently my interview skills had atrophied and died. I arrived to the interview on time wearing my most professional outfit. But I was so nervous that when the interview asked what the last great book I read was, I froze up. Suddenly I couldn’t remember a single book I’d ever read. I sputtered a nonsense answer about ‘reading so much it’s hard to decide,’ and then stared at the interviewer awkwardly until he moved onto the next question. The saddest part is that I really do read constantly. I could’ve talked about being swept up in the haunting tragedy of The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, or how Kavalier & Clay was so achingly beautiful I didn’t know what to do with myself after finishing it…”

This really amused me. How many times hasn’t that happened to you, where you think of a great response to another person’s question or comment only after your chance to say it has passed? I know it’s happened to me a lot! And it’s even worse when it happens during something like an interview; if you’d just been talking to a friend, it’s not a big deal, plus you could possibly say it later. But an interview? Too bad, that ship has sailed. Plus, in the moment, your anxiety about bombing that question likely throws you off for the rest of the interview and makes you act strangely, like how Adam stared awkwardly at the interviewer afterwards. (That’s what cracked me up the most about his story; I pictured him just sitting there, with the silence lasting longer and longer….!)

I know how Adam must have felt, because it’s happened to me. In one particularly bad interview, I actually said something not only incomprehensible, but it also sounded borderline inappropriate! Here’s what happened.

I was interviewing for a writing internship at a publishing company which produces materials for educational institutions. I really wanted the job because I liked the work the company did, plus the position paid very well compared to other comparable roles (some of which didn’t pay anything at all, actually).  So I was thrilled to have been offered an interview with the head of the company.

All was going well until he asked how long it typically takes me to write a 1,000 word piece. Now, that question threw me for a bit because the length of time a piece of writing takes me varies depending on the subject — do I already know a lot about it or will it involve extensive research? And the approach to the topic is a vital factor too — will it be a news article or a first-person account? Since this company produced a wide range of published works, I wasn’t sure what kind of work I’d be producing for them, and that made answering the question hard for me. Plus in the past, I’d write for as long as it took and had never quantified my work time. I was just beginning my writing career back then and didn’t have enough experience to estimate how long it took me to write — or how long it should take me. Even now, I tend to overthink things and neurotically check, check and re-check my work, but that was especially true then when I was starting out. So I was worried I might answer with a length of time that sounded crazily long, or like an inefficient use of company time — but if I went too far to the other extreme and gave too short of a timeframe, that might make it look like my work wasn’t thorough enough. I knew I was willing to spend extra time on my writing for them during my own free time if needed, since I really needed the experience, but I just wasn’t sure how to base my answer on all these nuances.

I decided to break down my answer into 2 parts, as honestly and realistically as possible: the time I’d likely spend doing background research and outlining the piece, and then how long I’d take to write and polish it. I started to say something along the lines of, “Well, it would probably take me about an hour to do the nuts and bolts of the piece, although that would depend on the topic, and then approximately another hour to organize and polish it.”

But suddenly my brain felt that the term “nuts and bolts” sounded old-fashioned, plus it was vague; I knew I meant research, but I should say that more clearly! Unfortunately, my mouth was faster than my brain, so my internal self-editing turned into me saying that it would likely take me an hour to do the “nuts of the piece,” then another hour to wrap it up.

The nuts of the piece? What the heck is that?

Needless to say, I was immediately embarrassed. I felt my face get red and I was aware of myself fidgeting as I first paused, then quickly rambled on, trying to gloss over my odd response. The interviewer — and remember, the head of the company! — looked at me quizzically for a moment, but didn’t press for clarification. I was relieved but at the same time was also scheming how to retroactively correct my choice of words in a way that wouldn’t draw attention to my error but would make more sense and not seem so…well, weird. But I couldn’t do that and focus on the current questions he was now asking me, so I had to move on. And I was very uncomfortable during the rest of the interview.

Later, a friend asked me why I didn’t just continue saying “nuts and bolts.” But I’d felt I couldn’t — I’d already altered my phrasing and moved past the point where I could use my original sentence! She then asked why I didn’t just try to work in the journalism term “nut graf” that we’d learned in our college classes, which refers to the paragraph in a news story which summarizes the essential points of the article. That would have been a decent strategy, but I was too far gone by that point to even think of something intelligent like that. It was all I could do to keep up with the rest of the interview and try to get to the end of it with some dignity.

Amazingly, however, I got the job! I really hadn’t expected to, especially since this was a writing job. I figured they’d want someone who could communicate better than I had! But somehow I was hired. That might be why I’m able to laugh about the interview now; had I lost out on the opportunity, I probably wouldn’t be as light-hearted about it.

I’m now glad it happened, actually — it showed me that an occasional slip-up doesn’t spell doom and mean certain failure. And looking back, I realize I could have handled it better. Now that I’m older and not as easily embarrassed, if the same scenario happened today, I think I’d just briefly correct what I’d said and explain it.

That doesn’t mean I wouldn’t still feel odd for what I’d said; I would, and I’d definitely still blush. (That is a weakness of mine I can’t seem to fix!) But I’d probably say something like, “You know, the nuts and bolts of the piece. In other words, I’d research the topic; then I’d…” And just keep moving forward normally, versus freezing and then prattling on in a nervous, overcompensating way.

Trying to hide a mistake, when you’re clearly aware of it, just makes you look like you’re not willing to admit your own shortcomings. Who wants to work with someone like that? I know we’re told to highlight our strengths and downplay our weaknesses and mistakes in a professional setting, but I prefer to just say the truth, without any spin. Not sure if that’s the “smart” approach, but it’s worked for me over the years. Why try to hide the obvious?

Overall, here’s what I now say about interview slipups:

  • If you’ve ever had a bad interview you keep beating yourself up over — don’t! It’s done, and it happens to all of us — and it’s not the end of the world.
  • If you get the job in spite of it, you’ll know you really had what they were looking for if they were able to look past your gaffe.
  • If you don’t get the job? It probably wasn’t just because of that — I know that may sound discouraging, but what I mean is, it could be for reasons you couldn’t control right now anyway. Like maybe they hired someone who was able to take a lower salary, or the position itself is being put on hold.
  • But if they did rule you out based on something odd you said or did, but which is relatively minor in the grand scheme of things, then you probably wouldn’t have wanted to work there anyway. Having had my share of miserable work environments over the years, I now would rather not get a job where people are uptight and closed-minded than get it and hate every day I have to drag myself into the office.

Hope this helps anyone who has never gotten over an interview mistake, or those of you who may have an interview coming up…and that’s the nuts of what I have to say right now.