Writing Samples

The Passport Catastrophe

My mother, the World’s Most Organized Human, planned our family trip for a year. She arranged everything, including private buses to let our family see what we wanted, when we wanted to see it, without having to rely on excursions provided by the cruise line. Every few days she’d ask for my input and offer updates; I’d zone out, secure in the knowledge that the World’s Most Organized Human would take care of everything.

Except my passport.

The Sunday before the trip I retrieved mine and the kids’ so I could fill out online preregistration forms for the ship. I could do this easily because I’m so organized (uh huh), that I have a safe in my basement so I don’t have to rely on a safe deposit box. Two months earlier I’d checked their passport expiration dates because kids’ passports don’t last as long as adults’; I hadn’t bothered to check my own, though, because that would have been just too . . . sensible.


Would it be trite to say my life flashed before my eyes? I visualized my mother melting down because I’d have to skip the trip she’d labored over, and who could blame her? I’m sure I must have done dumber things in my life, but I haven’t been able to recall any. I saved her a lot of trouble because I immediately began beating myself up much more effectively than anyone else ever could.

After hyperventilating briefly I switched into crisis mode. When you come from a family where everyone wants to be boss and nobody settles for peon status, your DNA contains a recipe for expedited disaster management, with extra reproaches for dessert.

I researched emergency passport renewal online and began calling the State Department’s toll free line. The recording complained about the high volume of calls, ordered me to call back later, and hung up. Seven times.

I finally made contact with a recording instructing me to wait, wait, wait, wait, promising someone would be along sooner or later to set up an appointment. During my forty-five minute telephone endurance test, I snatched luggage and clothes and flung one inside the other in case I managed to get my hands on a fresh passport in time for our trip.

Meanwhile, I bounded from web site to web site, debating using one of those passport expediting companies versus flying to Chicago for the day. When I found that the private companies weren’t open on weekends, I abandoned them and focused on traveling to the Federal Building in Chicago and handling the crisis myself. During my second forty-five minute telephone marathon to confirm exactly what documents I’d need to bring, I arranged quickie reservations on Southwest for the next day (I love Southwest Airlines: they’re respectful, helpful and easy to work with. Every time I fly Southwest I wonder why I don’t fly Southwest every time).

My flight left at 6:30 a.m. I’m not a morning person under the best of circumstances, but having to be on the road so early to follow up on my self-imposed humiliation intensified the anxiety.

I arrived in Chicago by 7:30 and had so much time before my 11:00 appointment that I opted for the train instead of a taxi. I arrived at 8:30 and found — surprise! — hundreds of people waiting for passports. So much for breakfast and newspaper before my appointment: I got in line.

I won’t belabor the story. I won’t tell about the 90 minutes it took to get through security, unsure whether I was in the right line or even the right building and unable to ask anyone because when I left the line the security guards shooed me back. I won’t describe the senior citizens, families with small children, and parents with infants standing for hours because we were warned not to block the lobby by sitting on the floor. I won’t tell of the woman who was kicked out for using her cell phone, after having waited three hours. I won’t talk about all the appointments that came and went without acknowledgement. I won’t describe how, after nearly four hours, the line came to a standstill when most of the staff went to lunch. I won’t speak of the guard who told me I could eat half a bagel but not sit on the floor while I ate it. I won’t mention the EIGHT HOURS I stood in line because what would be the point?

All day I muttered that, while I deserved to be punished for carelessness, I didn’t deserve to be beaten up and left for dead. By noon my hands were shaking and I was having a tough time forming coherent sentences.

On the other hand, I will take note of the people who shared snacks or held your place while you got a drink or went to the bathroom. I will remember the twinge of amusement we felt when a reporter and cameraman showed up outside the building to commemorate our day in Purgatory. I will mention the appreciative chuckles greeting an observation that we seemed to be reliving the waiting room scene from Beetlejuice.

All in all, it wasn’t such a bad day. Okay — who am I kidding? It was one of the most fatiguing, preposterous, humiliating, stressful and annoying days of my life. By the end of the day I flew home with a shiny new passport, along with a unique story to entertain family and friends. Since then I seem to have taken on a new role as Expired Passport Maven; when my friends need their passports replaced or updated immediately, they call me for guidance.

Who’s Responsible?

More than half of the resumes brought to me for updating mention “responsibility”: “I’m responsible for supervising, organizing, selling, buying, managing, training, building…”
I cringe at “responsibility”, and you should too. Here’s why: On seeing a list of responsibilities, your reader can get distracted daydreaming about how often you dropped the ball. One of the fundamental rules of marketing yourself is that if you distract your reader, you may lose her attention for good.
We all have responsibilities. We are responsible for driving the speed limit. We are responsible for paying for purchases. In my house, we are responsible for putting away shoes and clothes. Do we always do what we should? Does it make any difference if our responsibility is spelled out in a law, contract, or chart? Of course not. Just because you say you have an obligation doesn’t mean you carry it out correctly, reliably or admirably.
Much more impressive than having a responsibility is following through on it. The reader must understand how you fulfill your duties. So don’t hesitate to brag on your successes. A list of accomplishments makes you memorable, since other potential employees may have responsibilities like yours, but none can flaunt the same combination of achievements.

Superlatives Are Best. Adjectives, Mediocre

When describing yourself in order to land a job interview, offer facts that can be evaluated: accomplishments, track record, what makes you unique. If you were first, fastest, best, brought in the most business or clients or fans, highlight those accomplishments because they will catch your reader’s attention.

Adjectives? Not nearly as effective. Not only are adjectives subjective (everyone can claim to be enthusiastic, but what does that really mean?), they are mostly meaningless filler. Supervising projects or teams, working quickly or efficiently, showing attention to detail, being a go-getter – everyone can claim these qualities, justifiably or not. Be specific; “I supervised tons of associates” becomes “I supervised teams of up to 549 colleagues.” “I completed a big project really fast” is better as “I finished a projected nine-day project in four days.” “I paint super quick” becomes “I designed and painted 43 billboards in 17 days.”

Adjectives can be helpful, though, when you are aiming for a job you have not held. You may be right out of school with no applicable work experience. You may be reentering the workforce after raising children or spending time in the witness protection program. Or you may be trying to enter a new field, say transitioning from banking to selling sailboats. In these cases the main thing you have to hang your hat on is your adjectives. If you’re right out of school, your study habits, research skills, punctuality, and positive attitude are probably the large part of what you have to offer, so offer them. Remember, though: your second resume after entering the work force will reflect your actual experience, so the adjectives, and just about everything else aside from your name and phone number, will most likely be replaced by tangible accomplishments.


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