The Best Job I Ever Had (A Stolen Headline, But True)

In March, Chris wrote a post titled “The Best Job I Ever Had.” He joined Popular Woodworking Magazine in 1996 as managing editor. I joined the magazine in 2001 as assistant editor, and then moved up to associate editor and, later, managing editor. Before Chris left for Germany he gave me some ideas for posts, and with Brendan Bernhardt Gaffney slated to join Editor and Content Director Megan Fitzpatrick and her crew in July as the new managing editor, Chris thought it might be nice if I offered a behind-the-scenes look at the job, from my perspective. So here goes. (I’m fairly certain Chris didn’t realize I have pictures.)

First, a confession: I suck at headlines. Which is why I swiped Chris’s. But the words and the sentiment are true for me as well.

Some background: I graduated from Ohio University with a magazine journalism degree in 2001. A few weeks later I moved into a sketchy studio apartment in Alexandria, Va., to write for a b-to-b mag in the printing industry. The people were great, the topic was dull and I was in love with a guy who was still in school at Ohio State University. I found an ad for an assistant editor position at Popular Woodworking Magazine, and I applied.

lamp

Remember, I was 13 at the time. (Dent is in the front.)

Steve Shanesy (editor at the time) and Chris (managing editor at the time) interviewed me. They liked my clips. They needed a wordsmith, not a woodworker. I told them about the lamp I made in junior high shop class, and that I had dropped it while working on it and, with the school year rapidly ending, I had tried to hide the dent I had made by mixing sawdust and glue, and filling it in. I told them I got a “B” in the class (which, looking back was quite generous, given my lack of skill at the lathe as well). They still hired me.

“Behind-the-scenes” can mean different things for different audiences. According to my résumé, my managing editor responsibilities looked like this:

• Responsible for day-to-day operations of a 200,000 circulation magazine that competed with six different woodworking magazines for subscribers – developed line-ups; created and maintained photography and illustration schedules; tracked status of, edited and made changes to articles; made corrections to final binder; reviewed printer page proofs; attended press checks to ensure printing quality at all hours.

• In charge of special issues – additional responsibilities included conception; developed cover lines.

• Managed approximately 40 authors, photographers and illustrators per year—negotiated, wrote and tracked approximately 100 contracts per year; in charge of manuscript submissions; established and enforced deadlines.

• Primary editor for an $83,145 manuscript budget and a $66,650 art budget.

• Wrote five features, seven how-to articles, seven profiles, two reviews and Contents page; built projects.

But honestly? I had to look all that up to remember it.

I’m only 38, but so far my years at Popular Woodworking Magazine impacted me professionally and personally more than any other job I’ve ever had (and that includes the weirdness that occurred working third-shift at Meijer’s selling jewelry to folks at 3 a.m.). I’ve spent the past week trying to pinpoint why, and I can’t. But I have some ideas.

The editors at the time insisted they were looking for a new hire with a journalism degree, not a woodworker. And while they expected me to learn the craft, just as any niche magazine editor must do, they didn’t expect me to excel at it, unlike the expectations they did have regarding the responsibilities I have on my résumé.

At the time, though, I didn’t believe them. And so I tried my damnedest to do both. All of the editors regularly pulled me into the workshop to learn. Those seven how-to articles? I built them, but with an editor guiding me every step of the way. Never was a failure laughed at or mocked (at least to my face, ha!). Instead every single one was viewed as a teaching opportunity.

One afternoon I was working on a project with Chris in his basement home shop. I forget what we were building but it involved the table saw, which I had used many times before. I don’t remember exactly what happened (maybe Chris does) but for some reason the wood drifted away from the blade. One thing I was doing right: My body was positioned not in line with the blade. Which was good, because when I realized it was all going oh-so-wrong, I looked up to see Chris, white as a ghost, waving his hands at me. I’m sure it was frantically, but I only remember it in slow motion. The kickback was so powerful that it bent the blade of one of his chisels hanging on the wall.

We stopped. I was shaking. We went to Skyline Chili for lunch. He said it would be good for me to go right back to what I was doing. So I did, with no instances of kickback this time. And he kindly refused when I asked if I could replace his chisel.

They put me into classes. I took a weeklong course at Lonnie Bird’s School of Fine Woodworking, where I built a Shaker end table. I was nervous as hell, believing that Lonnie and the fellow students would have assumptions about an editor from Popular Woodworking Magazine. But everyone was incredibly kind and respectful, and seemed to understand something that I did not: I was hired as an editor, not a woodworker, and that was OK. In fact, the only unnerving part of the week was when I tried to build a fire in the fireplace in my chilly room at the local bed and breakfast, and woke up some angry wasps.

The Shaker end table I built at Lonnie’s still sits next to my side of the bed, and has two small rings of milk stained on the top of it. I feel terribly guilty about this, every time I look at it, but in some ways, it’s fitting. That table was difficult for me to build, and took a lot of courage. But so did pumping milk and bottle feeding two twin boys in a sleep-deprived state for a year while also caring for a 2-year-old.

evilchair

My children, pointing out their scars and sharing their thoughts on my past refusal to take Chris’s advice.

I, along with several editors of the magazine, built a Welsh stick chair with Don Weber. This took place shortly after my honeymoon with the guy who was studying at OSU. We currently live in a 100-plus-year-old foursquare now, and my chair sits in the entry. My kids call it “The Evil Chair.” At the time I was working on it Chris suggested I break the edges a bit more. I didn’t listen. All three of my children and my husband have scars from the times they’ve run into it. But I refuse to move it.

My house is filled with many loved treasures from my time at the magazine.

chrisdavid

I’m fairly certain I was the only one who insisted on pictures while traveling. Christopher Schwarz and David Thiel in California, January 2003.

Then there was the traveling. We were so lucky. And as a young 20-something, the trips had a deep impact on me. Although I grew up in a family that valued and was able to travel, never before had I stayed in hotel rooms solo. And I’ve since learned that long road trips are one way to truly know another person – I knew my coworkers well.

We ate well. I, along with Steve and Al Parrish, our photographer, once ate dinner at a seafood restaurant in Boston after visiting Norm Abram for the day. They ordered raw oysters. I carefully watched them take their forks to detach the meat, pick up the oysters and slurp them down. I followed suit, pretending I knew what I was doing. I had only recently stopped being a vegetarian. (I haven’t had a raw oyster since.)

We ate burritos with Sam Maloof. Don Weber introduced me to lemon curd. Lonnie Bird introduced me to shrimp and grits. The art director, Linda Watts, who I became dear friends with (and still am) invited me to her house for movie nights where she introduced me to slightly burnt butter on popcorn—it’s delicious. Chris invited us all to his house for dinner, many times. (He’s an excellent cook.) Once we visited Eugene Sexton, on the way to something else. Sexton had a wood-drying process shrouded in mystery called ESP-90. He offered us some green beans from his garden that he said would allow us to live longer (very Tuck Everlasting-ish). I even ate some of those and as for their success, only time will tell.

As a woman in a workplace made up almost entirely of men, I was respected. My gender was never part of the conversation. Once I was helping out at our booth at a woodworking show, and a very well-known tool manufacturer had a booth next to us. They had hired a bikini-clad model whose only job was to stand with a sign that said “let me grind your wood.” I was so irked by the whole thing that the following day I told my colleagues that I was going to go over and say something to the folks who worked for the company. My fellow editors didn’t bat an eye, even though I’m fairly certain that company was an advertiser.

staff

Celebrating the debut of Woodworking Magazine. Left to right: Steve Shanesy, Matt Bantly, David Thiel, Christopher Schwarz, Michael Rabkin, Linda Watts, myself.

The job was varied. After a day spent making editorial corrections to files and re-checking those corrections to make sure I hadn’t introduced a new mistake, I got to spend a day researching who built Pope John Paul II’s coffin. After a day spent sending contracts, writing check requests and updating our editorial calendar, I got to spend a day lugging around Al’s photo equipment two hours up north for a photo shoot at Troy Sexton’s. After a day spent reading seven manuscripts and making marks with my purple pen (we each had a different color when editing to know who to argue with when we disagreed with a change), I got to spend a day in the shop, sweeping, learning sharpening techniques or drilling so.many.holes for a Tool Test piece on cordless drills.

I often had guilt. Here I had a woodworker’s dream job and I wasn’t a (good) woodworker. I had a bit of, what I later learned was called, imposter syndrome. But with time I learned that what I had to offer was valued.

When I left and Megan became managing editor, I was in absolute awe. Here was a woman with an MA in English Literature and an exceptional knowledge of Shakespeare who poured herself into the task of learning the craft of woodworking. And only a few years in she was building the most beautiful pieces (and still is, today). She’s wicked smart and exceptionally kind. I never worked for her but still, when I was stuck in the hospital in the hell that is preterm-twin-labor-stifled-by-magnesium-sulfate, she stopped by, to visit. She’s one of my favorite people.

And Brendan, I don’t know you (yet), but after reading Megan’s post, you are a perfect fit. And know that it’s worth the move. Because editing and filing and contracting and invoicing and harping on (and on and on) about deadlines aside, this community is filled with great people. Getting to know them has been one of the great pleasures in my life. Welcome.

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4 Responses to The Best Job I Ever Had (A Stolen Headline, But True)

  1. nrhiller says:

    Kara, all of your posts are lovely, but this one is exceptionally so. The pictures are the icing on the cake.

  2. fitz says:

    Sniff. Thank you.

  3. hgordon4 says:

    There’s a lot of “inside baseball” in this blog post, of course. But it does reinforce my perception that you all are a bunch of not only very competent, but also very nice people. Our money is well spent on LAP books.

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