Cloth stretched and hung on a tenter, origin unknown
Word Smith: Tenterhooks
A hooked nail for securing cloth on a tenter.
Idiom: “On tenterhooks”
In a state of uneasiness, suspense, or painful anxiety.
Living in the Job Search Mode, going on 18 months, is a tough grind. Having worked at a foundation, a boutique inn, a prestigious hedge fund, and a university, I have not been above digging ditches, weeding gardens, tutoring children, cooking meals and doing the dishes. I have volunteered at a private school, a literary arts workshop, a couples counseling group and lots more. I have written many hundreds of letters, applied for over one hundred jobs, and even proposed creating jobs for myself around the “pain” that I heard in some consultation work I have performed. In my Search, I came across the word, tenterhooks. It is a great word because it aptly explains exactly how I feel. The word was not tenderhooks, with a D, but after consulting the online dictionaries the spelling and meaning became clear.
Men, in particular, seem to define ourselves around “what we do.” That anxiety to have a job that is worthy of us continues for most of our lives. I guess it is natural to have high anxiety around employment, since we question: without a job, who are we? And, with so many men believing that the only way to leave this life is “with my boots on!” our job defines us well past the traditional retirement age.
As for me, there are various reasons for the painful anxiety. I left my last job knowingly and resolutely. It was no longer a good fit. In my next job I wanted more. Why? First and foremost is that I feel young and vital and want to contribute to something important. Secondly I want to stay “in the main stream” and to leave a lasting mark on this earth. I want to be proud of the contributions I make to the commonweal in the places I live: whether it is Baltimore, Maryland, New Haven, Connecticut, Portland, Oregon or some other place.
Those who are great inventors or the founders of organizations are gifted with creative juices or entrepreneurial spirit. Those passions are prerequisites to the lonely job of being there first. Choosing a different path takes courage. It is a solitary path to seek out non-profits, or schools to make my contributions. As a candidate for my desired place of employment, the prospective employer holds the cards. These days, they keep these cards very, very close to the vest. There are few ways to tactfully look over their shoulders for a glimpse at their hand for any Aces. We are dangling by our resumes and our shirttails and our shoe laces. MWe are walked around, poked and prodded, picked over and examined. To further butcher the metaphor, instead of pulling a card from our sleeves, we are uneasily suspended, arms and legs spread, like Da Vinci’s nude male model on a scaffold. And we feel grateful for the opportunity to hang thus exposed. What’s with that?
Part of the gratitude comes from getting any type of feedback from our potential employer whatsoever. We apply for a job, on line or via the mail, and we hear nothing back. Zip. Zero. Nada. The etiquette of the polite rejection letter is lost in the maelstrom of applications. Wow, there goes another mixed metaphor.
What I long for is a civil process to contact people, tell them what we feel we can contribute to their organization, to speak with a real person, to make a connection and to get hired. Sounds simple, but the older I get and the younger the potential employers, the tougher the task. The market is a tough one these days, but after nearly three score years on this earth, I will persist. The process tests who I am and what my future contributions will be, but I will keep refining my strategies to succeed and find a new way to contribute to myself, my family and my society.
My personal advice? Stay positive, stay strong, stay as connected as you can. Something will show up, with some God given Providence, to exceed our expectations.
 The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition, copyright© 2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2009.
Yes Dad, you will succeed in finding a new career path. Thank you for writing about the meaning of tenterhook. What a great word and I hope you do not feel like one of those hooks in the near future. A great job will come along, and aren’t going to believe how wonderful your next career will be 🙂