Friday, March 28, 2008


The Resume (A Random Anecdote)

Job #14: Magazine Man--Year Three

(Part III)

Well, of course it was just TOO ironic that a building that had once housed Ebola should come to house a magazine devoted to young doctors--let's call the magazine Young Medical Expert, or Y-ME for short. On my first day at work, I was--with much unnecessary mirth, I thought--assured that the Hot Zone building was way on the other side of town. But I have to admit I never quite believed it. On the other hand, I was scarcely at the magazine long enough to get to the bottom of it.

And here we come to an interesting point. Well, it's interesting to me, anyway, and it's this:

Of everything that happened to me during my year living in the DC area, my job was almost the least of it. Getting married, expanding my freelance writing base, wondering about the whole Ebola thing, becoming a super-villain, being courted by a large publishing company, and ultimately accepting their offer to come work for them--these all took prominent roles in my life compared to that job.

Generally, I think it's because Y-ME was more or less a pure joy to work on, and so was no trouble at all to me, and so ultimately made very little impression upon my memory (with perhaps one awful moment, which I'll get to). I loved my coworkers and would come to consider them good friends--they were all invited to my wedding, and my boss, the editor-in-chief of the magazine herself, actually came out to Ohio to attend the event. Hell, even after I quit, we were such pals that I was allowed to write the want ad and even interview some of the people who would take my job (and I even became friends with the guy who took it--no, it wasn't Jeff). I got invited back for parties and even served as a contributing editor to the magazine for several years (until all my friends left and the current editorial regime realized I wasn't contributing anything to them anymore and they rather unceremoniously dropped my name from the masthead). If you've read about my life at ASS magazine, you'll understand why Y-ME was such an unusual thing to me. It therefore should have resulted in all manner of interesting stories, but it didn't.

To be honest, it was kind of like working in Stepford. I was the only male editor amongst a group of women who were all unfailingly sweet and loath to offend one another. And for reasons that escape me, they thought I was hot shit--or at least they led me to believe they thought I was hot shit, because they always laughed at my jokes and ooh-ed and ahh-ed whenever I did something they thought was impressive, like fix the printer. Plus, they let me do pretty much whatever the hell I wanted. I got to write up fun, zany stuff for the back page of interesting medical trivia. When former Surgeon General C. Everett Koop offered the magazine a chance to come interview him up at Dartmouth, it was deemed cover-story material--and I got the assignment. It was the sort of plum that should have gone to the news editor (who had been there a lot longer) or the editor in chief, but I argued that Dartmouth was 20 minutes from my parents' house, and that by staying with them and eating their food, I could save the magazine some money (we were always strapped for cash, which was odd, considering how many rich doctors had been members of the association for whom we published). So I got to go! Y-ME indeed.

But after about three months on the job, one fact was becoming more and more obvious to me: as much as I loved the work and adored the people, the truth was, the magazine didn't challenge me in any way. Say what you will about Mr. Z and life on the ASS staff, but at least that negative environment forced me to constantly look for new and different story opportunities that would allow me to travel for work and get the hell out of that toxic office. It was just the opposite at Y-ME. We had a relatively narrow field of story opportunities to cover. It could be satisfying work sometimes, but also very limiting and, in its way, strangely comforting. If I were a different kind of person back then, I might have been lulled into a deep sense of complacency and could still be there, for all I know. But I was still young and ambitious and, it must be said, a little stupid, and I was of the impression that I needed to be working in an environment that pushed me to the very edge of my limits, whatever they were. It sounds terrible to say now, and I kind of hope none of my lovely coworkers from those halcyon days are reading this, because I don't mean to insult them. But they were also really smart people, of course, so I hope if they are reading this, they are honest enough to agree with me.

The only time the job became remotely interesting--from a blogging point of view, anyway--was when I got in trouble.

This happened only once, towards the end of my tenure at Y-ME. It was during the association's annual conference--my God, it could hardly call itself a proper medical association without having an annual conference all its own. During that time, I came to meet several of the young medical experts who were leaders or members of the association's various task forces. They had a task force in charge of lobbying for Clinton's health care reform, another one devoted to better medical education, yet another devoted to financial aid. It seemed like there were dozens of these task forces, devoted to God-knows-what.

I ended up spending some time talking with a young medical expert who was on the task force for disabled medical students. There were two co-chairs: one who had cerebral palsy and one who was hearing-impaired. Although the person I met was disabled in some respects, she nevertheless shared one trait I found all too common in young doctors: She was an insufferable know-it-all. In my brief time at Y-ME I saw this trait way too often, and especially when it came to writing. I can't explain the conceit, but I had more arguments with doctors who wrote for the magazine than with absolutely any other type of writer. They just couldn't fathom that there might be anything wrong with their copy--such as the fact that it was totally incoherent and unreadable--and that I would have the temerity to edit their precious words. Who did I think I was, they demanded, supposing that all their years in chemistry and anatomy had magically granted them the ability to craft stirring prose, when all I had to my name was a master's degree in journalism--a lowly arts degree, for goodness sake? But I ramble...

In the case of this particular medical student, she was mostly interested in getting medical schools to make reasonable accommodations for people with disabilities who wanted to make a career in medicine, which was certainly a noble and worthwhile cause. Worthwhile enough that I suggested writing a story about it in Y-ME. This caught her quite by surprise. It had never occurred to her that this might be subject matter for a magazine article. But she consented to do an interview, right there at the conference, which I recorded on my trusty tape recorder. By the time we were finished with our interview, though, she announced that not only was my story a great idea, but she would also be the main subject of the story, and that she should be the writer of the piece. That wasn't quite what I had in mind--for a broader view, I had intended to interview two or three people with different kinds of disabilities--but I suggested she and her co-chair each write first-person essays about their experiences in medical school. I figured they'd make nice companion pieces to the main article.

Meanwhile, I proposed the whole thing to my editor, who endorsed the idea wholeheartedly, and set about interviewing subjects for my story, including disabled people who'd already graduated from med school and those who were trying to get in to med school. In the course of my research, I found a young man who'd been quadriplegic since his teens (owing to a diving accident) and who had been rejected by a medical school that had for years basked in the glow of its reputation for having admitted a blind man to its medical program years earlier. I scored a key interview with an administrator at the school who ended up giving me some rather damning quotes that made the school sound incredibly shallow and crass and served as a powerful counterpoint to the effort of groups like our association's task force. It was solid, investigative journalism--the closest I'd ever come to it, anyway--and I was exceedingly proud of the work I'd done.

I ended up making the quadriplegic man the main focus of my piece, but also included a couple of other disabled students--the hearing-impaired co-chair of the task force and a blind woman. The other co-chair of the disabilities task force submitted her essay, which was intended to run as a sidebar to the main story and gave the overall package a touching intimacy and depth. But despite repeated emails and faxes--including updates on story progress and even rough drafts of my work so far, I wasn't getting any word from the hearing-impaired co-chair, the one who had been so gung-ho about the story, to the point of deciding she should write it.

Finally, she got back in touch with me via fax, and it was then that I began to wonder if perhaps she was missing her sanity along with her eardrums. In a block of faxed text that read like one long, incoherent run-on sentence, she announced that my piece was "godawful" and it was nothing like what she had in mind when she first proposed the story to me (!!). She furthermore refused to be involved in the story unless I was prepared to start from scratch, or just let her write it, which it seemed obvious she was going to have to do since it was clear to her I had no idea what I was doing. All this, about a week before the magazine was set to ship.

Well, I'd had just about a bellyful. It was the spring of 1994 when this happened. I was 25 years old, 5 years out of college, and fairly confident of my abilities at this point. I knew as a matter of political correctness, we mere employees of the association were supposed to defer to the medical experts we worked with, but I'd been as deferential as I was prepared to be. So I faxed the woman back, reminding her that the story had been my idea, and that if she didn't want to be involved in the story, that was fine. I had one or two other sources I could use, including a medical student with a near-crippling back condition who I could put in the story in place of her. I should have let it go there, but I was young and stupid and full of beans. What was more, I had only a few days earlier received a job offer from the large publishing company I mentioned earlier. I hadn't yet officially accepted the offer nor given notice, but the secret knowledge of that escape hatch was just a little too empowering. So I added a paragraph in which I reminded this woman that, as a task force member and an official representative of the association, she ought to work a little harder on her tact and diplomacy, because if she used the same attitude on a TV reporter or someone from, say, The Washington Post, as she had been using on me, she'd find in short order that they wouldn't treat her with anywhere near the patience or courtesy that I had thus far shown her.

Well, the hearing-impaired medical expert (or, as I sometimes knew her in my private moments, "that deaf nut") flipped the fuck out. She called up my boss, who was absolutely blind-sided by the call. To make a tense situation awkward to boot, the woman, being hearing-impaired, was forced to relay her call through an interpreter. For my boss, it must have been very trying indeed, listening to a dispassionate voice reading off a screen of invective from the woman, then replying, then waiting while the interpreter typed out my boss's end of the conversation, bracing herself for yet another reading of screed.

After the call, my boss summoned me to her office and I walked her through everything that had happened. We agreed that I hadn't done anything wrong, exactly, but my boss was in a delicate position, having to play a decidedly political and diplomatic game with association members, and this incident only made her job harder. I was sorry about that, but aside from not telling the woman to tone it down, what else could I have done?

And then, of course, I did do something. I quit the next week.

It wasn't the best timing, I'll admit, but the big publishing company needed an answer, and in any case, it gave my boss an easy out. When the woman showed up at the office in person and continued to make a stink about the article, my boss told her she was running the story anyway, but left that deaf nut with the impression that I had quit--or possibly even been fired--because of the stink she had made. This placated her, but it galled me. I didn't want her to think her temper tantrum had gained her anything.

And so, about a month later, as I left a moving van and crew at my apartment to pack up the last of my stuff (the big publishing company spared no expense when it came to relocating me, a fact for which my new mountain bike was exceedingly grateful), I returned to the Y-ME offices to turn in my keys and to pick up copies of the latest issue. My boss, God love her, had run my article as the cover story. I grabbed several copies for myself, then sat down at my desk one last time and filled out an application form, attached several copies of the story to it, plopped it in an envelope and put it in the outgoing mail. Then I left.

The envelope contained a submission for the Easter Seals EDI Awards. I don't think it's something they even have any more, but back then it was a big deal, something that the big media outlets--both broadcast and print media like the New York Times, the Washington Post, Time and Newsweek--all competed for. I thought Y-ME had a better than even chance at getting an award in its category, for print media with a circulation under 50,000 readers.

And indeed, several months later, I got a call from an Easter Seals rep who'd spent a good deal of time trying to track me down. As I had hoped, Y-ME had won the EDI Award for its category. But the rep was calling because we'd done better than that.

My story--the "godawful" one that had been the cause of so much strife--had won the Grand Prize.

As I found out, the piece had in fact beat out entries from all the media I just mentioned, as well as 60 Minutes, the NBC Nightly News and many more.

I didn't win any money--not for an award from a nonprofit organization--but I had won an all-expenses-paid trip to New York to come to the Easter Seals banquet and collect the award on behalf of the magazine.

"Wow, thanks," I said, "but you know who you should invite instead?" And I gave them the fax number for that deaf nut.

I never did find out her reaction when they contacted her with the news.

But I can only hope it was something along the lines of, Why Me?!?

From Somewhere on the Masthead

I'm calling you, the next time I need to make someone eat their words with a shit sandwich! (In a classy way, of course.)

Don't you know that Arrogance 101 is a required med school course? Not to mention, 'Being God for Dummies' is a first year handout.
I don't know if pilots are as bad as doctors, but trust me there are some real gems that I encounter in my job...fortunately, most contact is brief and over the phone. I should say that 90% are pleasant to work with but the other 10% make up for it.
I love that you did that at the end - gave them deaf nut's number to call. Good for you!
That was so f***ing sweet! Well worth waiting for through the weekend. GREAT denouement.
Great story and the ending is priceless!
Holy smokes... I wish I could write half as well as you, MM. Fascinating story, and good for you! I love the way you always find a way to stick it to someone in the end. It's very inspiring :)
MM, A friend introduced me to your blog. You're a tremendously talented story-teller and writer, and I'm really enjoying reading your blog. Keep up the good work!
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