John Michael Mumme
ON (AND OFF) CONSISTENCY
For the last two years, I worked as a Staff Assistant for the Career Services office at Cedarville University. My job was to review résumés. A student comes in for a peer review, feeling little confidence in her ability to write a résumé and none in the merit of her past job experiences of baby-sitting, lawn-mowing, and cafeteria work. When she leaves, though, together we have crafted a pristine portrait of her, dressed her in words and white space perfectly suited to win her the job of her choice. She simply needed reassurance, and who could not be reassured by watching all the best things about oneself slowly fill a single piece of paper?
In “Strangers,” a song by the British rock band White Lies, lead singer Harry McVeigh recalls a lonely one-night stand. “I pressed my ear to your chest,” he begins, “and heard something personal. A whisper that knew my name.” McVeigh seems disturbed by this sudden, unexpected intimacy. “Is this how your heart treats all strangers, with love and affection? Then I feel cold and empty.” Most of the people who visited me at Career Services were strangers. We dug around their past, going through drawers, looking under the bed for anything that might make the résumé better. “No stone unturned,” as McVeigh sings in the pre-chorus. I asked them where they have worked, what they like to do, how involved they were in high school, what job they aim to attain with this particular résumé. I asked them to pinpoint the essence of who they are, and to capture that on the page and show it to me. By the time they left, I knew more about them than I do about many of my friends. McVeigh’s voice in the chorus rings out in my mind as they walk out: “Strangers don’t hide.”
Isn’t my own résumé all about hiding, though? At its best, it is a metonymy for me. It stands up and fills in for me, pleading my perfectly polished case to the hiring manager, begging for the job I don’t deserve. At its worst, it’s a carefully constructed lie. One of the things I harp on when editing résumés is the need for consistency: make sure the locations are all in line and right justified, italicize the name of each job position, either put a period after every description or do not include any. Neither is correct—only be consistent. My own résumé follows all the rules I give the students who come visit me in my role as “résumé expert.” It’s beautifully aligned, symmetrical, with just the right amount of white space. It is a model of consistency.
But my real life is much messier. Nothing stays in the straight lines I so easily force on myself in the confines of the résumé. There is my résumé self and there is my real self, but too often only I know the difference. Afraid of being a stranger, I craft a résumé self in my everyday life: consistently aiming to prove to my family and friends that I’m cut out for the job, hiding the way my limbs, like the girl’s limbs in the song, “treat all strangers with love and affection.” My objective in this essay is to tell you, the reader, why I need the résumé self, why I pretend that consistency is a virtue, to ultimately dig down and find the essence of who I am. It might not fit on one, nicely formatted page, but stay with me. After all, strangers don’t hide.
My ability to write and edit a résumé self comes from my family. We are a stack of beautifully sculpted texts on cream-colored, watermarked printing paper, bound together in a leather portfolio—this shows our unity, our closeness, and our general excellence as a family. But look behind the lines and see the things the résumé selves hide, the cracks they smooth over, the pain and suffering they disown: my mom’s brother who died of AIDS around the time I was born, the three babies lost to miscarriage, the house constantly filled with the dissonant sounds of arguments punctuated with slamming doors, the crushing debt brought on by the economy’s downturn and the expense of private education, the ever-growing distance between me and the rest of the family.
As a child, I learned that one’s character is what one does when no one is looking. We use the résumé selves when everyone is looking. Alone with ourselves, we tear the papers down and try to get a look at each other’s true nature. Then we get in the car, smile centered and in bold on the page of our face, close the doors, and with the résumé selves firmly in place, speed off to church. I’m not trying to make my family sound evil or sinister; we are just fractured in a normal way. Beneath the résumé selves is not only disagreement and anger, but love as well. Even this love, however, is misrepresented in our public images. At home, I throw acorns at my younger brother and try desperately to beat him in video games. My mom, unable to let go of her protective instincts, still expects Sarah, at age twenty-nine, to listen and obey everything she says. Courtney and Emily fight over fashion and which men on TV are more attractive. But when other people come around, we just sit up and stand in portrait formation, another form of the résumé self.
My family also informed me of the evils of compromise. My dad tells me that compromise only means one has no principles and no longer believes in anything. I do not share this belief, but it’s hard to shake your upbringing, no matter how much you wish to. My family seems static in the face of my own terrifying uncertainty. We’ve lived in the same house for almost two decades now. Our days together pass by with little variation. Even our disagreements are predictable and cover consistent topics. Our lives are rigidly oriented around the dinner table, used for the community experiences of breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as various card games, usually pinochle. My family’s beliefs—religious, political, financial, cultural—are starkly uniform—aside from my own, of course. There’s the way we were taught and that’s all. That’s the truth.
I think that’s part of the reason why, when I was thirteen years old and afflicted with debilitating depression and anxiety over my identity, the future, the existence of an afterlife, the terrifying concept of eternity, the banal nature of life, I could not bring it up with my parents. I paced around outside their room at odd hours of the morning, heart pounding as I tried to convince myself to turn the door handle and wake them up, looking for answers and comfort. I slid down the wall and cried for a while. Eventually, overcome by fatigue and fear, I got up and ran quickly back to bed, awake in the dark and haunted by my own thoughts.
I used to condemn my family for hiding behind their résumé selves, especially from the most serious issues of life. But eventually I realized I was the worst offender. I do my best not to tell them anything intensely personal about me, especially things I know they would dislike. I hide the real behind the résumé, which proves I’m not a stranger, I guess. But the big questions of life, of love, of art, of humanity, slip between the lines.
One of my mother’s repeated lines of advice for me as I prepared to go off to college was the simple didactic phrase: “don’t touch girls.” This was not a joke. She pulled me aside and told me this with a stern face to emphasize the message’s importance. As I understood it, this was not simply an unwarranted yet normal parental attempt to safeguard a son from the dangers of sexual activity, but it was a literal command: Do not touch girls at all. Not even a friendly hug.
While well-intentioned, this advice, especially since it was given after I had already kissed a girl, had already experienced the feel of a girl’s skin under her clothes, fostered a guilt complex in me. I had already seen a girl naked and a girl had seen me too. More things I cannot tell my family.
The music video for “Strangers” is compiled of what appear to be webcam recordings of people engaged in various, often rather abnormal, online sexual encounters. A woman dressed as a unicorn prances around. A man slowly undresses, then redresses himself in women’s clothing. People dress up as orca whales or wear bunny suits. These moments are all cut together and crescendo, becoming more bizarre and urgent as the song builds towards the end. Amidst the craziness, though, sits one rather beautiful Asian woman. She takes off her shirt and it is implied that she begins to touch herself.
My confession, my destruction of the résumé self, the self whose family and friends would not suspect to find me a stranger, is that I would fit right in that music video. I have been that Asian woman before. This is something I have told to one, maybe two people before now. But I’m taking White Lies’ lyrics to heart. If my friends are true, if my family is strong, then they will find the real me even when I cannot. McVeigh is right again as he ends the chorus: “there’s nothing stranger than to love someone.”
You, as my reader, may find such an admission strange in an essay about consistency. Depending on your own point of view, your own upbringing and beliefs, you might find this particularly strain of guilt tragically silly. Or perhaps you will identify with it and understand how it fits in with an attempt to divine whether a real me exists under the résumé self or whether I’ve become a total fake, whether I’ve airbrushed myself even to myself.
As I told you from the beginning, though, this essay intends to force the real me out of hiding and whether you find it to be foolish or not, the real me struggles with guilt and regret over past sexual experiences, as much as the résumé self hates to admit those even exist. The résumé self is the one with all the friends, many of whom are girls, who know me as a feminist and a defender of woman’s subjectivity. How do I reconcile this with what I know of myself that they do not, that I am also a man who fits as one of the sad souls in the “Strangers” video?
Those sad souls ultimately are not being judged for their proclivities, but rather being viewed with sympathy as people desperate for a connection, finding it the only way they can. The crazy thing about the résumé self, whether in regards to sex or being scared to admit my fears to my parents at age thirteen, is that I’m proud of it. I feel pretty skilled when I pull off the résumé self and the real self extremely well, all in the same day. I take pride in the fact that no one knows more about me than I want them to. But I miss the point. The people in “Strangers,” both the song and the video, are lonely. They turn to strangers because they don’t have anyone else. But I do. Why do I put all my desire on people I barely know, on strangers, allow myself to be naked, emotionally or physically, with them, but stay clothed and guarded around my friends and family? I shouldn’t, but I feel like I’m continually applying to keep the position.
The reference section is the part of the résumé where you list the people who can back up all the grandiose claims you just made about yourself. It is supposed to prove that you have not just fabricated a résumé self, but that you are actually as competent, capable, and professional as the crisp piece of paper suggests. I’ve just spent a whole essay telling you how I hide from everyone, though, so who could I recommend that will tell you the truth about myself?
At the end of the song, McVeigh imagines the woman he slept with now in the shower, “gripping the gaps in the tile, just holding on tight.” The connection they had has abruptly ended. Strangers may not hide, but—just like the students who came to see me at Career Services, where I helped them find the truth about themselves and record it on a page—they don’t stick around long either.
In the end, the résumé self is not a total lie. I am most of the things the résumé self says I am, but not all the time. But no one is the same all the time. Our bodies change, our hair grows and is cut back, our cells constantly replace each other, our character develops, our beliefs change. None of this makes us any less of a person. The résumé self is mostly a defense mechanism. Just like at age thirteen, I’m still afraid to break the barrier—whether it’s opening a door to my parents’ room, tearing apart an expertly crafted piece of paper, or baring myself emotionally to people who actually know me—and really trust someone else with a piece of myself.
The résumé self will likely never totally disappear, but I can learn to use it, learn to deserve the jobs I’m granted as a son, a brother, a friend, and maybe eventually, even as a lover, a husband, and a father. And if so, that will be an impressive résumé indeed.
John Michael Mumme is a 2013 graduate from Cedarville University where he earned degrees in English and Technical and Professional Communication (TPC). He loves reading, writing, and the Dallas Cowboys. He considers himself an amateur film critic, and you can read his reviews here. By next August, he hopes to be enrolled in an MFA program in Creative Writing with a concentration on fiction. This is his first published piece.
Read more from Cleaver Magazine’s Issue #3.