I have done many things in life to advance my career, most of them nontraditional.
Prior to going to Washington, D.C., I primarily tried to advance my career through the nontraditional (and nonsuccessful) means of "not working very hard at all." Through 1994, I had the following jobs:
McDonald's. Dishwasher at Chenequa Country Club. Dishwasher at Denny's Restaurant. Burger King, stockboy at J.C. Penney's, assembly line worker, cook at pizza restaurant, gas station attendant, political activist (I mentioned that one already), waiter, dishwasher at "Coffee Trader" restaurant, usher at movie theater, and sandwich maker at Subway restaurant.
And through 1994, I had lost those jobs for these reasons, respectively:
Called in sick to go out with friends. Club closed for the winter, needed new work. Quit because manager wouldn't give me off for prom night. Quit because I didn't like working for my brother Matt. Quit because I didn't like working. Quit because I was bored. Quit because... well, for no good reason. Quit when I moved to Milwaukee and the drive was too long to make it worthwhile. Quit because I didn't like it. Quit after one morning waiting because one of the customers was drunk at 8 a.m. and it really annoyed me to wait on him. Quit, but I don't remember why, and for "usher" and "sandwich maker," I left those jobs because I went to Washington.
Something changed in Washington, because since then, I've had (relatively) fewer jobs. Since 1994, I've worked as a tutor, as an intake interviewer for a correctional program, as a -- a something or other, I'm not sure what, at a computer company (I think it was a computer company), as a "tenant counselor" in Madison, as a law clerk at two government offices and a firm, and then I had my own practice before joining the firm where I now work. And each of those jobs I only left because it was time to move on -- I was either physically moving or had become qualified for another, better-paying job through school or work.
Except for the job as a law clerk at the firm. I thought they were going to hire me on and keep me there. I was pretty sure about that because they'd talked to me many times about my plans when I graduated, what kind of law I'd like to practice (real answer: Criminal defense. Answer I more or less gave them: "What is it you practice here, again? I like that.") and, in general, had done everything but put my name on the letterhead. That's why I was excited when I was called into one of the partner's offices one morning in May, just a month before graduation and two months before I'd be sworn in as a lawyer.
Yes, they swear in lawyers. We take an oath. I'm not sure what we promise; I wasn't paying attention. The only oath I can ever remember is Green Lantern's oath:
In brightest day
In blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight.
Let those who worship evil's might
Beware my power:
Green Lantern's Light!
So let's just say that I was a month away from graduation and two months away from vowing to defend my sector of the universe from evil, and a partner at the firm, Jean, called me in to talk with me.
"Well," she said.
"Well," I said.
"So, have you given any thoughts to what your plans are after graduation?" she asked me. I relaxed a little. The sky was blue, the air was warm, I would soon be making more than $10 per hour and I might be able to afford to upgrade my automobile from the Ford Festiva which I loved but which was not adequate transportation for the guy destined to be the hottest new lawyer in Baraboo, Wisconsin.
"Well, not really. I don't have anything lined up," I said. It was true. In law school, there is "interviewing season," the time when law firms come to the schools and people can request interviews with them, sit down for an interview, and hope to get picked as a clerk or lawyer. I had not interviewed with many firms. There was one that I had been interested in, in my second year, and so I signed up for an interview with them. I don't remember the firm. I do remember the interview. The interviewer was a prototypical young lawyer: double-breasted suit, striped shirt with white collar, tie with a tie pin or whatever those things are. If this had been the 1980s, he'd have been a bond trader, but this was the 90s, so he was a junior lawyer at a law firm. (In the 2000s, he'd have been a mortgage banker.)
We chatted a bit and he looked over my resume. He asked about a few classes and extracurricular activities -- at that time, my resume listed that I had been the pitcher on our law school softball team my first year. That's quite a feather in one's cap-- and then said this:
"I see you're not on Law Review."
Which wasn't entirely true. There was, at the University of Wisconsin Law School, both a "Law Review" and a "Law Revue."
The first, the "Review" was a very prestigious (?) position for law students in which the students got to research esoteric topics of law and public policy, then write stuffy articles explaining footnote 17 to the UCC Commentary on section 9-212 as it's interpreted by the Louisiana Courts of Chancery and argue for an adoption, instead, of the premise instituted by the Treaties for Humane Treatment of Stockyards Postulate 12. These articles would be published periodically in the "Law Review" and then ignored by everyone but professors and other students on the Law Review, and occasionally picked up by a lawyer desperate for something, anything, to argue in a case.
My boss at the firm where I was almost, but not quite, hired, explained it to me this way once, when I wrote him a memo reciting some law review articles and other "public policy" arguments. He called me into his office and asked why I was arguing "public policy." I explained that by arguing "public policy" we could urge the courts to adopt our position because the mainstream of society would benefit from such a position, and that rule of common law would then help our client win this trial.
He looked at me and said, with all seriousness: "If you're arguing public policy, you've already lost." Then he made me go do actual research.
So my view of the "Law Review" was not a great one -- I never tried to be on it, and I never cared who was on it. But "Law Review" was, nonetheless, a great honor, a big deal, kind of like being first in your class (only the UW didn't use class rankings like that.) It was the writing-equivalent of having a white collar on a striped shirt.
I was a clever fellow, though, and so when White Collar asked me about "Law Review," I had three options:
Option One: Simply say "No" and move on.
Option Two: Try to turn it around and make it a plus that I wasn't on Law Review.
Option Three: Make a joke of it and tell him that, no, I was on "Law Revue" and ask him if he'd like to see the dance I did with my song.
That was the other Law Revue, the one I was on two years running. Each year, the law students would get together and put on a comedy variety show...
... you're going to love this...
... in which they did skits and played songs... about law school, and how funny law school was.
There were skits about taking exams, and "hang files" and the renovation of the law school, and how boring Ethics class was, and the songs! Oh, the songs! Songs like Palay, the name of a professor -- sung to the tune of Today, by Smashing Pumpkins. God, I'm cracking up just thinking about it. I bet you are, too, unless you are sane.
I didn't do comedy skits. I did join the band, though, as a singer, and I sung. I sung that song, Palay, for example. I also did Good, which was a takeoff on Better Than Ezra's Good, only our song was about how good it had been being in a different building for classes while the law school was being renovated.
See, it was sarcastic; we didn't really think it was good, at all -- so we were turning the whole concept of good on its head, as only clever law students could.
I also did Summer Nights, from Grease, as a duet with a student named Joy, and my big number, the one I was most proud of, was Life During Law School, a song set to the tune of Life During Wartime by the Talking Heads, only with law school-centric lyrics like:
I've got a backpack that's
Loaded with textbooks
Packed up and ready to go.
Heard of a school that's
A place where nobody goes.
I can't remember all the lyrics, but you get the idea. It captured the groovy paranoia that was the essence of Life During Wartime, but in a totally classroom/notetaking/job interviewing way.
And I not only wrote that -- spending over an hour on it, instead of my Constitutional Law reading one day -- but I performed that, live, and did an awesome dance. Well, awesome for me, considering that I dance like an oak tree, only I'm a little more self-conscious about my dancing than an oak tree would be. I assume an oak tree would be a little apologetic about the whole thing, dancing but also looking at you like I'm sorry I dance this way, but I am, after all, a tree, whereas I am a lot apologetic when I dance. But the dance in the Law Revue when I did my Talking Heads song was entirely spontaneous.
I thought about those three options for a moment in my interview for the job, and decided that no matter how well I sung those songs (and I was awesome, far far more awesome than the time I auditioned as lead singer for a band when I was a freshman in college and did Johnny B. Goode and You Really Got Me. I'm far more of an indie rocker. And John Travolta impersonator) no matter how great I was, it was unlikely to get me the job. So I tried a little interview judo, instead, and said something to the effect of no, I didn't try for Law Review, because I don't really see how it's helpful. In my schooling, I've tried to focus on more practical classes and study programs and internships, because I think those prepare me to be a practicing lawyer, whereas Law Review doesn't really lend itself to anything that's helpful in practice.
To which White Collar replied "I was the editor of my Law Review."
That interview lasted about another minute. I never heard from them again.
The only other place I interviewed at during law school interview season was with Ford Motor Company. I don't even remember the interview. I was talking to someone outside the interview room, and the interviewer came out and called someone's name, and that person didn't respond. After a few minutes, the interviewer said "Well, it looks like he's not showing up. Anyone want to be interviewed?" So I went in and was interviewed, because I had time to kill.
Later I got a rejection from them. It wasn't even a letter. It was a 3x4 postcard that had my name and address typed on the front. On the back, this was written:
Thank you for your interest in our _______________position. We regret to inform you that your skills did not meet our present needs. We will keep your application/resume/cv on file with us.
It wasn't signed, and they hadn't filled in the blank. Also, I hadn't ever given the interviewer my resume. I wondered why they bothered.
But I didn't worry about interviewing because I was pretty certain I was going to be hired by the firm I was clerking at; certain right up until the moment that Jean told me I wasn't. She continued our little talk in her office by saying:
"When do you graduate?"
I said at the end of May, and expected her to start talking about benefits, or salaries, or a new desk, maybe, and instead, she said:
"Do you think you could have your desk cleared out before then?"
It turns out they weren't hiring me; they were hiring a guy who'd clerked there before me, a guy who had actual experience and wore a suit more often than I did, a guy who had the job that I had thought I had.
It made me glad, right at that moment, that I had accidentally erased a program they needed off of the firm's hard drives. I would have thought that they might have not hired me because of that, but I never told them that I was the one who did it. I played dumb.
They weren't done with me, either -- Jean said they'd like to take me out to lunch as a treat for doing such good work for them for a year and a half, and I agreed, even though all I could think was screw you, I oughtta head home and start looking for a way to pay my rent in a month. Then Jean said "But we're really busy, so can you come up the week after you graduate?"
And I did, too -- but not because of Jean, or the lunch she bought me (nobody else from the firm came with me.) I did it because I was dating Sweetie, who was a secretary at the firm and who later moved away and quit that firm. So let that be a lesson to those who overlook or underestimate me: I'll get you back. I won't necessarily, in the future, get you back by stealing a secretary and marrying her, because I'm married and also because I don't like to repeat my revenge, but I will get you back.
It did bother me that they didn't hire me, since by then I was a pretty good employee and also had done all those things that are supposed to be career builders, like show up for work on the day after Thanksgiving (one of only two times I've worked that day in my whole adult life) and wear ties and be reasonably punctual, and all that had left me unemployed a month before graduation, unemployed with several hundred thousand dollars of student loans looming, and no real idea how to find a job whatsoever.
I've never really had to find a job; I didn't have to go looking for many jobs, even given the number of jobs I've had in my life. They were offered to me because people I knew worked there, or I walked past the place and saw a sign on the door, or I got them because I was a work-study student, or by being the only person willing to commute an hour to get to the firm I was clerking at (the one that didn't hire me) and, in one memorable turn of events, I got a job because a girl the interviewer thought was hot talked to me.
That job was the job at the governor's office, where I interned in the Office of Pardons and Extraditions, a job that sounds far more fascinating than it was. The Office of Pardons and Extraditions worked under the Governor's Legal Counsel, and I was not extremely welcome there because the Legal Counsel, as I noted earlier, was convinced that I was secretly a Democrat. I didn't get hired by him, though. I got hired by my friend Jeff, who was the actual person in charge of the Office of Pardons and Extraditions.
I will just say this right out, now: I don't really know what the Office of Pardons and Extraditions, did, either. Other than the fast food restaurants, I have never really known what it is the companies I worked for did. I mentioned the computer company, the one that I think was a computer company. That's an excellent example of what I'm talking about -- and what I'm talking about is my ability to somehow get hired at jobs that I am completely unqualified for and completely uninterested in, and then somehow stay there for a while.
The computer company, if it was that, was a summer job before I went to law school, in between graduation and law school in 1995. I started working there because my jobs tutoring political science and statistics ended with the school year, and, having a college degree and all, I didn't feel like going back to work at Subway. So I temped, and my temping involved working at only two places. The first was one day in a print/copy room at an engineering firm (where I still didn't meet any civil engineers.) The next day I was sent to the computer company to take the place of a woman who was leaving on maternity leave.
"You have computer skills?" the temp boss asked me on the phone. I said yes, because I did -- I had worked on a computer in Washington, D.C. and also I had written a bunch of short stories on the computers at the computer lab at UW-Milwaukee.
So if you ever doubt the power of an internship to get a job down the line, remember that my internship got me a job temping at a computer company. I went there the next day and Maternity Leave worker showed me my desk, and the computer I would be working on, and introduced me to people like Kevin, the programmer whose idea of "Casual Friday" was ripped black jeans and heavy metal shirts, and Randall, the guy in sales that I would go outside and smoke with as often as I could. I am not, as I sit here, sure that his name was "Randall" but I think it was, and he also in my memory kind of looks like "Randall" from Clerks.
Here is, then, everything I remember about that job: There were a bunch of those little 3 1/2 inch floppy disks in a cabinet behind my desk, and I think that my job was to catalog them and enter them into a spreadsheet. Beyond that, I had no idea what I was supposed to be doing. None at all. And I did nothing, really. Nothing, quite literally, including the day that I crashed my computer by having it play every single screensaver in serial form.
My computer, I'd found, would rotate among all the screen savers it had, and it had about 35 of them. I quickly discovered how to set it so that it would play about 2 seconds of each screen saver, and then flip to the next one, then the next. So it was flying toasters pipes, 3d images, bouncing balls, words and phrases and so on.
As you can guess, to get the screen savers to come on, and then flip through all of them in a row, I had to be very careful never to use my computer at all. But I was fascinated by the screen saver random assortment, and I never got tired of looking at it and wondering which one would pop up next, how far the pipes would get before being erased in favor of the fish -- and I never got tired of tinkering with that, trying to speed it up and make it better, until one day I locked up the computer and had to get my boss, the head boss, Evert, to come help me.
He was pretty cool about it. He never said anything about it, or about my performance, at all, until on my last day there I was having lunch with him and he said "Let me ask you something. You don't know anything about computers at all, do you?"
I said "Nope."
He said "Have fun in law school." And he paid for lunch. I liked Evert. Plus, he was super-tall. He was about 7 feet tall. I respected that and I never once asked him if he used to play basketball.
So it should be no surprise that I also didn't know what the "Office of Pardons and Extraditions" did, other than "maybe something to do with paroles and extraditions." I really had no duties there. With the Legal Counsel in charge, the next-in-command was Jeff, the friend who'd hired me. Jeff was the guy who ran the office. He processed Extraditions, or something, he made up packets of warrants and sealed them and downloaded things and printed things and made phone calls. He also chided me for not being good at sealing envelopes. He never let me actually process an extradition or parole, although I did get to attend a Pardon Board hearing once -- sitting where the public sat. Only there was nobody there except the people seeking pardons, and me. I was the Public.
Gubernatorial pardons were a very regimented thing, I learned. Someone who wanted the governor to pardon him or her would not just write a letter. There were applications to be filled out, references to check, and then, ultimately, the Pardon Board, a group of appointees, would hold a public hearing to which the person had to come and testify about why they needed a pardon. Pardons were given only for "need," and only if the person demonstrated not just that they needed a pardon, but that they'd earned it in some way, too. The "need" criteria seemed especially tough; nobody needs a pardon, as far as I could tell. They want them. They would like them. But they don't need them, unless they are a former president who has resigned and gone off to San Clemente. After you've done your time (that was one of the criteria - -your sentence had to be completed) and gone back to the community, what good if a pardon? It doesn't erase the crime. It doesn't seal the records. You're still a convicted criminal; you just get to say that you've been pardoned, too.
But those lofty concerns were not mine. Instead, I watched the proceedings mutely, and then later on, got to run the Autopen and hold letters under it while a machine signed the Governor's signature. The Autopen was neat; it's an actual pen in a little machine that actually moved and signed the Governor's name, the same, more or less, every time, onto warrants and documents and papers and letters. I didn't, and don't, understand why there was an autopen, instead of, say, a stamp, but it seemed to make a difference to the kind of people who want to make sure that there are distinctions made for no apparent reason. To me, in either case -- stamp or Autopen-- the Governor didn't actually sign it; but to people who need to make those kind of distinctions, there was a difference of some sort there, and so the State of Wisconsin had an Autopen that would sign Tommy Thompson's name, an autopen that sometimes a lowly law student had access to.
(In case you are wondering, no, I do not have a pile of Pardons ready to go for me and my friends. But I considered that.)
I only wanted the Pardons and Extraditions job because I thought it would help me get a foot into the door of government. By then, I was thinking still about politics and government, having abandoned my plans of traveling for a living, and I thought if I could go work for the governor, that might be the key to getting into politics - -the very key that "Rob Day For Congress" had turned out not to be (he'd finished fifth in the primary, and as far as I know, Kurt never got a date.)
So I interviewed with Jeff, sitting in the lounge area of the temporary law school building, and the interview, I think, was not going particularly well, until a girl I knew named Michelle came over and said "Hi" to me and briefly leaned over and talked about going out for drinks that night with a bunch of the others, and then when I said "I'm in the middle of something, here," said she was very sorry and that she'd talk to me later, and left.
And Jeff said "Who was that?"
I said "Oh, it's just a girl I know."
"Friend of yours?" he said.
"We're not, like, dating, or anything," I told him.
"So, who's all going out for drinks?" he asked.
I thought about that and said "I don't know. Want to meet up?"
A few days later, I was being talked to by the Legal Counsel himself.
As attempts to get a job go, it was an improvement over the method I'd started when I was in Washington, D.C., the year before. The method I'd started back in 1994 was this: write letters. I began, when I was in D.C., writing letters to anyone and everyone I could who I thought might have an interesting job and/or be able to help me get an interesting job. And I didn't just ask about jobs -- although I did a lot of that, writing to NASA to ask how to become an astronaut or get into the space program, writing to the CIA to find out how to become a spy. Some of them wrote back, too.
I expanded out, as I said, writing to people who I just wanted to meet. I wrote to the White House and asked how one got picked to go jogging with the President. I wrote to Justice Antonin Scalia, asking if I could meet him. I wrote to anyone I could think of, asking them about their job and how they got it and how I might get a job like that, or simply meet them.
I did those things, writing to people, in part for the same reason I was in D.C. in the first place: I was curious, and I wanted to find things out. I'd lived my whole life up until then in a small part of a small state and had no real idea what was out there in the world, how people got where they were, what people did. I never seemed to know, at all, what was going on -- and everyone else around me did. Everyone else around me seemed to know all the tricks to life, all the tricks that I didn't know. How to tie a tie (I didn't know how to properly tie a tie until the summer of 2000, when my dad noticed how I was tying my tie and said I was doing it wrong and showed me the right way to do it; up until that time, my ties were always crooked and left-handy.) How to get jobs. How to travel. How to meet people. How to find your way from a train station in Washington D.C. to your dorm. How to do the stuff at their job -- I didn't have any idea what I was supposed to be doing for Pinkerton, any more than I'd ever before -- or for a long time after -- had any idea what I was supposed to be doing at any job.
So I was desperate to find out. I wanted more than anything to find out as much as I could while this little sojourn from my other life was going on.
That, and I never had anyone show me how to do anything. Not that my parents didn't try, but I wasn't the best at learning. I didn't want people to show me things or do things for me, ever, in my life. My mom likes to tell about how when I was very young, I wouldn't let her tie my shoes. I insisted on tying my own shoes, and did it horribly (much like I would later, with my tie) until I finally got it right.
That's how I'd lived my life, up until 1994 and during 1994. I wanted to do things on my own, to find them out for myself. I rejected efforts to tell me how to do things, show me how to do things, and instead tried to figure out ways to do them on my own.
That can be an exhilarating way to go through life -- because you achieve things you might never have if you listened to people. If I'd listened to counselors tell me that I couldn't get into UW, I'd never have tried and the world wouldn't have been treated to Life During Law School. If I'd listened to people who said You can't just write to a Supreme Court Justice and ask to meet him, well, then, I'd never have spent a very pleasant hour chatting with Justice Scalia.
But it's also exhausting. It's exhausting, making up your life as you go along.