Today I am sick. I’m pretty sure I’ve been sick all week, but today my body figured it out, and has gone ahead with the whole procedure: muscle ache, sore throat, slight dizziness and that febrile remove from reality, which is a bit of a blessing, since otherwise I’d be too pissed off at my body for getting sick to reflect on the experience.
Maybe my body is merciful. I had two job interviews this week. Not informal, sit-down interviews, but full-on suit-wearing cramped-room sessions with government employees writing down everything you say in spidery longhand. Everybody looks slightly orange under the fluorescents and all the questions are framed in abstract terms that hinder more than help. Followed up by sessions in cubicles, written exercises on hypothetical policy questions. By this point there’s a mist of sweat trapped between your skin and your shirt as you plunk out your answers on a ten year old IBM with a pebbled beige skin. There’s no time for physical sickness in these situations.
Being interviewed makes you feel insubstantial, like a cloud of coherent dust in a beam. To everyone else you look opaque, but you can see straight through yourself. It’s much like being sick: your outer surface is a shell, but inside you’re atomized. A little part of you flies around inside the shell, gathering necessary bits here and there, passing information between lost motes: a messenger that takes temporary duty as consciousness.
That’s definitely what it felt like on Tuesday, when I was being interviewed for my own job. That may sound strange, but this is the government, where you get the job for six months, then another three months, and then you get the interview.*
I thought that having the job would make the experience easier; after all, who knows a job better than the one who holds it? It turns out that an interview is an interview: small rooms, unexpected questions, and the unshakeable feeling that you have come not as a free agent to offer your services but as a half-drunk hobo looking for a handout. I choked on a couple of easy questions at the start of the interview and felt lost for the rest of it.
It turned out that I had done extremely well, and what had seemed to me like a full-on breakdown appeared to my interviewers as a slight case of nerves. My freshly shaved and suited shell kept me going. What really surprised me is that I performed particularly well on the financial analysis questions. To say that I’m not very good with numbers is an understatement akin to saying that water is not very dry. So when I was given the financial statements fifteen minutes prior to the interview, I studied the living hell out of them.
At first the numbers swarmed in front of me, a cloud of dollars and percentages. After a few minutes I stopped paying attention to the numbers and decided to look through them, at the behavior of the institution that had produced the numbers. This, apparently, was the right thing to do. Screw all y’all, high school math teachers! Yeah, I’m talking to you, Mr. O’Connor! You with the Kramer hair and the glass eye. You were weird.
On Wednesday I did the whole thing all over again for another position in the department, but this time I was inured to the fluorescent inhumanity of the whole process. I refined and perfected the shell, putting on a new white shirt under my suit. I felt more confident walking out of that interview, but in truth I was more in the position of enthusiastic and gifted amateur than an experienced professional. I came home and dropped my suit on the bed, shucked my new shirt and let the air crawl over me. I should have guessed from the tingling of the air on my chest that I was sick, but I was too busy sinking into solidity once again.
*I hyperbolize: when I first started working here, I was awarded a six-month term at the executive director’s discretion. Tuesday’s more rigorous process was part of an open competition for my existing job on a permanent basis.