Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Working, part 3

All my life, I'd been told, or it had been intimated to me, that I could "always get a job as a secretary." My understanding of such a job was that it mainly consisted of typing -- on a manual, or later, IBM Selectric, typewriter (on paper, for all you young folks out there). Although supposedly a safe fallback, such a job was also supposedly completely boring.

When I reached the point where I had finished my coursework in Cincinnati, I could have simply stayed on there, freelancing on the cello, teaching my few students, and perhaps getting one of those secretarial jobs of family lore. For some reason, though, I recoiled at the idea of lingering, eking out a living while the next batches of young hopefuls thronged into the conservatory. Some sort of nesting instinct crept into my consciousness. I suddenly wanted to be close to my family, to have a real job that wasn't a month-to-month scrape, to live in a nicer place.

My eldest sister had a job managing the office for a small court reporting agency in Glen Burnie. I asked her if I could get a job as a court reporter. She didn't seem to think I could do it, but my painful shyness that my whole family was familiar with had morphed to a more normal shyness. My years of performing, organizing music for weddings and parties, and teaching had made me more than minimally capable of the interactions needed for doing the court reporting work.

This was not the reporting most people are familiar with, with the reporter typing furiously on a little machine and a long ticker tape boiling out of it. Instead, I was trained as a Stenomask reporter. A Stenomask looks something like this:

We used two-track tape recorders, with one track recording the actual sound in the room and the other our reporting into the mask (identifying each speaker and repeating word for word what he or she said so that in case there was too much background noise for a clear recording, there was an accurate record). We also had to take notes -- for example, noting the counter number for when each speaker started, names mentioned and spellings thereof, exhibits introduced. We also had to swear in each witness. There's a certain amount of skill involved in speaking into the mouthpiece without being audible to anyone in the room and without whispering (which translates into a lot of hissing on the tape).

Another aspect of the job was traveling to different locations every day. Someone from the office would call and leave a message with the address and time, and I was expected to show up. Yet a third duty was transcribing our reporting. By the time I started doing this, transcribing was done on a computer, with the files saved on 5 1/2 inch floppy disks (realizing that this was all state of the art at the time makes me feel old!).

The company owner did the training himself, but there was also a national organization that did testing and provided a certificate. I took the test after about a year of working at this and passed it (some of the other reporters kept trying and couldn't pass it).

So I was fairly successful at this, and at first it was exciting; I was out there doing a real job, with real people! The most interesting part was learning about how other people lived and worked. During depositions, I would hear all about the witnesses' lives, sometimes in intimate detail. I learned what they did for a living, how they had been trained, how much money they earned, and many more details. It was like being a fly on the wall. But after about three years of it I was weary. I was tired of doing so much driving and not earning enough money. I didn't like it enough to go into business for myself, which was the way to make real money at it. (Sounds familiar, doesn't it?)

So I started applying for jobs, and I was hired to work as an administrative assistant for a start-up nonprofit. I worked there for two years, until they ran out of money and were about to close up shop, and then I got a job at a university law school in the administration office as a "Faculty Manuscript  Assistant." This job had been created at the request of some of the professors to help them with preparing papers for law journals and doing other things like getting copyright permission for course materials. It was not a terribly challenging job. After I'd been there for a couple of years, I met a woman who was a technical writer at a small engineering company where a friend worked. We got to talking about jobs, and the upshot was that she got me a job at the company as a technical editor.

I had always thought I'd like to be an editor. It combined the mythical typing job I'd grown up hearing about with reading, research, and schoolmarmy grammar policing. I took a couple of editing courses (proofreading, copyediting, printing and graphics). The job at the engineering company was not busy enough, so I left and, through someone I knew, got a job as a production editor in the publishing arm of a large nonprofit. That was almost 10 years ago, and I'm still there. I've gotten pretty skilled at it, and am one of the most senior production editors there, which is almost an oxymoron, "production editor" being more or less an entry-level job.

People often tell me I should be "doing something with my music." It sounds like a good idea in the abstract, but when I imagine trying to put it into practice, I remember that panicked feeling I had back when I realized that $400 a month wasn't enough to live on in the real world. I remember my first piano teacher packing in those students, stuck in her basement smoking cigarettes all day, getting fat and suffering from back problems. And then there's the issue of whether I'm good enough to make it worthwhile, which I'm still not sure about. But that's a subject for another post.

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