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A Writer's 'Cold, Calculated Acts Of Kindness'


Now, it's time to open up the pages of the Washington Post Magazine. That's something we do just about every week for interesting stories about the way we live now.

Today, somebody who has lived through something too many people in this country know all too well - and that's being laid off and having to look for work; and finding it not only just hard but humiliating, depressing, and somehow or another, hilarious.

T.M. Shine had been a staff writer for a well-regarded regional newspaper for 18 years, until he was rather abruptly laid off in 2008. After months of job hunting and soul searching, he decided he needed a change of attitude.

We'll let him tell you about it. T.M. Shine joins us by phone from Florida. Welcome, thanks so much for joining us.

TERENCE SHINE: Hello. How you doing?

MARTIN: Well, good. You know, first, you wrote about being laid off in May of 2008; also in the Washington Post Magazine. You wrote about the cold way it happened - something a lot of people have experienced now and, if they haven't themselves, they may have heard about it in that movie. Remember "Up In the Air," with George Clooney, where you're just kind of abruptly - kind of escorted out of a life that you've had for...

SHINE: Yeah.

MARTIN: ...for a long time? But somehow, you managed to find humor in this situation. Did that come - did you find it funny at the time, or was that something that came later?

SHINE: Well, at the time, I wrote a column called "Timeline," where you kind of noted all the little things that happened during the day. So it just became a natural thing for me. It was kind of a humor column so when it started to happen, I actually was - I was stunned but in that way, I thought, well, this is going to be material at some point.

MARTIN: And I hate to put you on the spot like this, but what was the hardest thing about it, and what was the funniest thing about it?

SHINE: The hardest thing - I think people - a lot of people tell you that, you know, being unemployed is a full-time job because you're supposed to be constantly doing interviews and constantly networking, redoing your resume. But I didn't have the discipline for that. I just couldn't be a - it's just too much stress. So I would end up doing, you know, ridiculous things during the day, which would end up - you know, my wife getting upset and things like that, too. I mean, I'd be watching - you know - seven episodes of "Eastbound and Down." I'd be looking up Jell-O shot recipes on the Internet. I got addicted to Tiny Desk Concerts on NPR.

MARTIN: Who could fault you for that?

SHINE: Right, right. (Laughing)

MARTIN: Except your wife, of course, would kind of appreciate it if you got a job. You talked about this one moment, though, where you realized that things had changed for you - when you were used to getting a big cake on your birthday, and your wife brought you what?

SHINE: She brought me - actually, it happened to be, coincidentally, somebody's birthday at work. So what I got was a cellophane-wrapped piece of cake that she brought home that, you know, had half of like, a C-A at the end of Jessica's name, from where she works. And then I realized I should be happy that I'm even getting that, at this point. If your family kind of forgets about you, you know, when you're not bringing home the paycheck every week...

MARTIN: Well, I don't know about that, but then, you know, you were out of work for a long time. And I think that is another experience that a lot of people will have had these days. Did you ever think it was going to take that long to find another job?

SHINE: No. But I ended up in a bit of a situation where I started to write a book, so I had a little money then and a little money - a little severance coming in; and then kind of just sensing that I was doing better than so many other people. And that's kind of where I started to get more sensitive about the way things are out there right now.

MARTIN: You kind of had an epiphany, where you kind of decided to kind of shift your attitude, And can you tell us about that?

SHINE: Yeah. Amtrak was hiring and I thought, well, that'll be great. I could travel, you know, around the country and drift around and, you know, make a living on Amtrak. But when I went to the job fair and - of course, it was too crowded and you couldn't even fill out a resume; it was mobbed. But I noticed that people were saying, you know, facetious things about other people that were there, and just being nasty. The world seemed so harsh to me as far as - not just - we all see it every day on the Internet, where everybody's insulting everybody. But it's like that everywhere, it seemed to me. And I decided, at that point, I just wanted to find something to do where I could just be nice to people. And that would be my thing. I just wanted...

MARTIN: And you actually put that on your resume. I'm going to read it.

SHINE: Yeah.

MARTIN: You know, at the top of the resume - the summary - you wrote, main goal at this point is to be nice to people. Looking for a position that both utilizes my job skills, and provides a work environment that values being nice to everyone. And you said - under personal strengths, you wrote, genuinely nice, sincere, kind and considerate in all work situations, welcome all job duties.

And it worked.

SHINE: It worked. (Laughing) Because I had really been looking - you know, even though I was doing other things - you know, freelancing - I was constantly looking for jobs in writing, and even in retail. I mean, I would go all over the place looking for jobs and got zero, and within a week, I had a job for a nonprofit retail business. And it's funny...

MARTIN: Are you still there?

SHINE: Yeah.

MARTIN: Yeah? You were going to say something. The funny thing was what?

SHINE: Oh, the funny thing is now - you know, because I thought, it's a nonprofit. I'll be perfect, you know, for this. But I've actually been called in now to the office for being too nice. The people - supervisors came in and had to discuss it with me, I mean, because it still is a business, I guess. But you know, my thing is being nice. I'm not great at everything else, but I'm just nice to everybody.

MARTIN: Now, is it hard for you to be so nice? I mean, did you have to teach yourself to be nice?

SHINE: I think you have to work at it. I was thinking that I don't think most of us realize how nice we are, really, when we want to be, or when we just let go. You know, I kid about random acts of kindness because my - I'm not random. I work at it. You know, mine are cold, calculated acts of kindness.

MARTIN: Cold, calculated acts of kindness. OK. Now, and I hate to say this. I think...

SHINE: You know, I'm constantly kind.

MARTIN: I think I can say this. I think I can say this because I, too, am a journalist. I don't know that people necessarily associate our line of work with being nice.

SHINE: Right, right.


SHINE: Even if we act nice, they think we're being phony, probably.

MARTIN: Right.

SHINE: You know - yeah. So...

MARTIN: So are you?

SHINE: No, no. I'm not phony.

MARTIN: You're genuinely nice.

SHINE: But I think also, as a writer, you're also kind of a loner, too, a lot of the times. And you're kind of an outsider, I guess. So you don't really get into really practicing that niceness that much. You know what I mean? Now, I'm in the moment. I'm with crowds of people. I'm right - you know, it's a different life for me, too, to be actually participating in life more than - I was an observer before.

MARTIN: Is this just for work, or is your family getting the benefit of your niceness, too?

SHINE: Some people have commented on how nice and calm I am at work. And I say, yeah. But I go home, I kick the dog and - no. But it's really like the opposite of work, but - no. I mean, I'm low-key. I've always been, you know, that way at home. But I didn't share it with the rest of the world, like I am now. You know what I mean?

MARTIN: Well, congratulations.

SHINE: Yeah, I enjoy it.

MARTIN: I'm so glad that worked out for you.

SHINE: Yeah.

MARTIN: And I think you are nice.

SHINE: Thank you.

MARTIN: So I'm glad you told the truth about that. T.M. Shine wrote a piece in Sunday's Washington Post magazine titled "American Idle." That's spelled I-D-L-E. And he was kind enough to join us by phone from Florida, where he's working and he's being nice.

Terence Shine, thank you so much for speaking with us.

SHINE: Oh, it's been a privilege. Have a nice day. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.