Breakfast of Road Warriors

riverside-marriott-lobby

Lobby of the Marriott Convention Center, Riverside, California

RIVERSIDE

Vegan on the Road

A perpetual concern of travelers everywhere is what to do for breakfast.  Lack of planning on the part of the traveler is common, and the quality of the traveler’s experience is thus largely in the hands of one’s innkeeper.  Unless you’re staying at a “bed and breakfast,” chances are better than average that you will be in for something inadequate, disgusting or, if you’re particularly unfortunate, both.

About the time you open your eyes and realize that you are not at home in the comfort of your own bed, but in a hotel room in a strange city, you will hear your stomach rumbling and you will begin to wonder where sustenance is to be had.  If, at check-in, you spied a sign at the front desk indicating “morning coffee available in lobby,” you know you are at the mercy of what’s available nearby.  This is when one’s stomach expresses the fervent wish that the local amenities extend beyond microwaving a pre-packaged burrito from 7-11.

We road warriors are dedicated to the truth that there is much work to be done and that such work must be fueled by some form of morning sustenance beyond mere caffeine.

My employer has informed me that I am not permitted to seek reimbursement for the cost of my morning meal if breakfast comes free with the room, even if it is a “continental breakfast” consisting of coffee and donuts.  The fact that I am unable to partake of either of the aforementioned delicacies does not appear to sway company policy in my direction.  Thus, I am better off staying the night in accommodations that blithely ignore their guests’ need for food in the A.M.

One way to assure morning prandial satisfaction is to bring one’s own food.  This is an attractive option for those with special needs, such as my fellow vegan and gluten-free eaters.  The success of such plan, however, is largely dependent on the presence of a refrigerator and microwave in one’s hotel room.  While such amenities are common these days (at least in North America), they are by no means universal.  In fact, may I suggest that the likelihood of finding food storage and preparation facilities located in one’s guest room is inversely proportional to the quality of the hotel?  One is more likely to find a micro and fridge in Room 108 at Motel 6 than in a 20th floor suite at the Hilton.  Then again, who wants to bring one’s own food when local culinary delights await?

Lesson learned:  When making reservations for business travel, be sure to order a refrigerator and microwave rather than waiting until check-in and hoping for the best.  That is, unless you want to end up like me, with a bagful of hard potatoes that you can’t cook.

I do have certain gluten-free vegan coping mechanisms that I use on the road.  Everywhere I go, I search for Thai restaurants.  This is not because I’m crazy about Asian food, but because most Thai restaurants offer at least a few dishes that can be prepared both vegan and gluten-free.  Pad se ew, please.  No meat, just tofu, no egg, no fish sauce, no soy sauce.  Those are real, gluten-free rice noodles, right?  Not so hot that I turn into a fire-breathing dragon, please.

As it is not my habit to eat Thai food for breakfast, however (even if there were any Thai restaurants open at that hour), I generally look for a place where I can find some fruit.  Now, my habitual breakfast at home is either coconut milk yogurt with banana and raisins or a “protein bowl” (garbanzos and tofu).  But I challenge you to find an American restaurant serving such delights at seven in the morning.  I frequently end up throwing a banana, a slice of gluten-free millet bread and a bottle of water into a bag as I hurry out the hotel door to an early meeting.  I hope to cadge a cup of tea at the meeting venue, but I am seldom so lucky in this coffee-devoted nation of ours.

As a case in point, a few days ago I was in Los Angeles.  After a night in a motel in a seedy area of town marked by the repetitive wailing of car alarms and sirens, I walked into a meeting and was surprised by a breakfast spread just waiting for the participants to dig in.  The viands consisted of turkey, ham, cheeses and rolls to make sandwiches, assorted muffins and, of course, coffee.  (Query:  Who the heck eats such crap at eight o’clock in the blessed morning?  When I asked this of my mother, she replied: “A farmer.”). Honestly, it’s such a ray of sunshine to be presented with all the lovely comestibles that a gluten-free vegan would be delighted to encounter.  And, of course, not a cup of tea in sight.  I sighed and dug in my bag for my banana and millet bread.

Here at the Marriott Convention Center in Riverside, California, one evening I wistfully reviewed the room service breakfast menu and its checkboxes and found the usual variety of egg dishes, meat and cereal.  When completed and hung on the door knob, a hot breakfast would appear, as if by magic, during the 15-minute interval of the guest’s choice (6 to 11 am).  And, just as magically, $15 to $18 per person would be added to the guest’s hotel bill.  Perhaps, I wondered, if I closed my eyes, recited an incantation and wished upon a star, the menu would magically be altered to include berries with almond milk or a breakfast sandwich of soy cheese and grilled tomatoes on rice bread.  Sigh.  In some alternate universe, perhaps.

Then a funny thing happened. While I leafed through the hotel’s amenities brochure and noticed the availability of a breakfast buffet in the lobby restaurant for the princely price of $19 per person, my wife attempted in vain to get the flat screen TV to work.  Not being wealthy, I couldn’t imagine spending nearly $40 (plus tip) for my wife and I to have breakfast.  After all, my employer allows me to expense the grand sum of seven dollars for my morning meal.  Perhaps I do inhabit an alternate universe after all.

I phoned the front desk to report that the telly was on the fritz.  The staff member on duty apologized and sent up a technician.  He messed around with the thing but had no more success than we did.  After he went off to contact the hotel’s internet service provider, my wife called the front desk again to ask about checkout time.  The same chirpy staff lady asked whether our TV had been repaired.  When we assured her that it had not been, she offered to have us change rooms.  No need, said my wife.  We were heading off to sleep anyway.  Apologizing once more, the desk clerk offered us two free breakfast buffets for our trouble.  Hallelujah!  Perhaps my awkward abracadabras worked the right spell after all.

Visiting Riverside is always a slightly strange experience for me, tinged with more than a bit of déjà vu.  My former employer was based in Riverside and, even though my work location was a three-hour drive east, out in the desert, I had to come into town two or three times each year for meetings.  Ironically, now that I work in northern California, I find myself still doing the same (although it’s a six-hour drive each way from Sacramento).

My former employer always put me up a few blocks away at the Mission Inn, deemed by many to be a premiere accommodation due to its historic setting and the ghosts of the past that some say continue to inhabit its walkways and guest rooms.  Personally, I never cared for it, finding the atmosphere dark, drafty and just a wee bit pretentious, as might be expected of some English countryside manor with a 17th or 18th century pedigree.

While the quaintness, antiques and Spanish architecture of Mission Inn appeal to many, I much prefer the modern amenities offered by the Marriott.  While the venue levies separate charges for most of these, those in the know are able to take advantage of the broad leeway given staff to satisfy guests.  In other words, many of the fees can be waived if you just ask (particularly if you mention that you’ve stayed with them before and that your employer has certain expectations in regard to costs).  Not only did we have $25 in wifi connection charges waived (“we still have to work, you know”), we also obtained free parking and an upgrade that allowed us access to the 12th floor concierge lounge (where we watched the Cubs and Indians duke it out on a big screen TV back in September).  Oh, and about that concierge lounge:  They serve juice and pastries in the morning and appetizers in the evening.  Appetizers?  Try sushi, curry, salad and desserts.  Who needs dinner?  As a vegan GFer, I could chow down on raw veggies, hummus and fresh fruit.

Riverside Buffet.JPG

Breakfast buffet at the Riverside Marriott

Which brings me to the $40 breakfast buffet for two that we were comped.  Although it was a weekday, a cook was preparing omelettes to order.  There were scrambled eggs, boiled brown eggs and several of my wife’s favorite breakfast items, including bacon, sausage, yogurt and bread and English muffins for toasting.  GF vegan?  I chowed down on oatmeal with raisins, potatoes and fresh fruit (cantaloupe, honeydew, pineapple and watermelon).  They even had almond milk on hand for my tea, a rarity on the road.  The staff was so accommodating that I wonder whether they would have sent out to Whole Foods or Sprouts had I asked for gluten-free millet bread.

My fellow breakfasters ranged from men discussing football and billion-dollar deals to an older couple traveling with a squirming three year old who was Face Timing the folks back home.  “Behave,” I heard her mom warn from halfway across the room (and, likely as not, from halfway across the country). “Don’t cause Grandma any trouble.”

 

 

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I Gotta, Um, Er, You Know, GO!

My coworkers and I had a grand old time and a lot of laughs at our recent holiday luncheon.  The highlight of the afternoon was the annual gift exchange.  The emcee would pull a name out of a hat and call the lucky person up front to select a wrapped gift from a very full table.  Alternatively, if you coveted a gift previously selected by someone else, you could “steal” the gift away.  The gifts of alcohol were extremely popular, so it was a good thing that there was a rule that a gift could be stolen only twice.

To add to the hilarity, the emcee started out by informing us that anyone who decided to steal had to either sing a holiday song or tell a joke.  If this was supposed to deter the predilection for stealing bottles of vodka, gin, whiskey and champagne, it wasn’t very successful.  It was a great rule, however, as the terrible singing and even worse jokes resulted in roars of laughter.

My favorite joke of the day, which the teller admitted she borrowed from her young son, referred to the streets of downtown Sacramento that are named with the letters of the alphabet.

Q: Why is it so hard living on O Street?  A:  Because you have to go a block to P.

What is funny about this joke, of course, is the double entendre reference to urination.  You can’t really go wrong with a joke on this subject.  Peeing is always funny, and comedians have been milking the topic for generations.

Before HBO and cable programming generally, you couldn’t make reference to “peeing” in the media without being accused of vulgarity.  Even today, over-the-air radio and TV stations have to watch it, as the FCC has been known to impose some pretty steep fines for gratuitous mention of bodily functions.  This pressure ultimately sent “shock jocks” such as Howard Stern, who appears to delight in “juvenile” humor about urination and defecation, scurrying to satellite radio.

In this day and age, references to the elimination of human waste are judged to be exceedingly mild, at least in the grand scheme of things.  This makes sense in a world in which many give not a second thought to the use of the most demeaning racist and sexist slurs.  It’s all relative.

For example, in the various places I’ve worked, I can’t recall ever seeing someone raise an eyebrow at an offhand description of an impending rest room break as “I gotta go potty” or “going to pee.”  I admit to stifling a giggle when I see the text abbreviation ggp (“gotta go pee”).  I have been lurking around online long enough to remember when this was a way of informing the mates in your chat room why you were going to be afk (away from keyboard).  At any rate, I now know that you can tell a joke that refers to peeing in front of fifty of your coworkers and no noses will be wrinkled.  And you can guarantee that I will be the first to laugh.

Many moons ago, I spent a couple of years working for a tiny community newspaper in New York.  It was a “family newspaper,” both in the sense that the publication was owned by a family and in the more traditional sense of that phrase, meaning that it was unfailingly “G-rated.”  The idea was that all members of the family, including young kids and Grandma, should be able to read the paper cover to cover without encountering any word or phrase that might be deemed offensive.

I remember how, in my college days, where I was one of the editors of the student newspaper back in the 1970s, we made a big point of thumbing our noses at this standard by taking advantage of the opportunity to print the most flagrant vulgarities in 72-point headline type on the front page.  Protesters (and we protested everything back then) were quite fond of including some very colorful language in their chants, cheers and taunts.  Quoting those was a convenient excuse to cuss in a big black headline.

At the staid, conservative weekly newspaper where I was employed in the composing room, however, our problem was not quoting protesters but how to, um, accurately describe the actions for which some of the local loony toonies routinely found themselves arrested.  Should we print “public exposure” when really what we meant was “public urination?”  I can just see some kid reading the paper when it hit local driveways every Thursday.

“Mom, what’s ‘exposure’ mean?”

“That depends on the context, dear.  Usually it has to do with developing photos, like how much light hits the film.  But it can also mean freezing to death, like when someone dies of exposure.”

Our family newspaper found itself in a pickle when a trucker got arrested for pulling off the road into a subdivision so he could pee in a bottle.  Some kids noticed what the hapless guy was doing.  Indecent exposure?  Or just a garden variety case of ggp?  The guy wasn’t exactly a flasher, but who knows what was in that pea brain of his?  Either way, the paper couldn’t get around mentioning that unmentionable, urination.  Ha-ha!  The joke was on the publishers.  “Serves them right for being such prudes” was my first thought as I gleefully typeset the article.

I very much like the approach that my brother-in-law’s mom always took in regard to this subject.  As an elementary school teacher for years, she was no stranger to kids who casually dropped references to peeing into conversations to see what kind of reaction they would get.  She would always interrupt the kid mid-sentence, interjecting “We all do it!”  Never failed to steal their thunder.

One could argue that, even today, we continue to experience some discomfort at public references to elimination of bodily waste, which may explain the use of such infantilized terms as “peeing” and “pooping.”  Admittedly, the liquid version seems to be a bit more acceptable than the solid one.  Few would be surprised at a fellow employee referring to a “pee break,” but one who was brazen enough to say “I gotta take a dump” would likely be considered vulgar.

Whatever you do, however, be sure to keep the bathroom references off the radio and network TV.  ‘Cuz the FCC’s gonna get you if you don’t watch out!

Devotees of the First Amendment need not apply.  After all, freedom of speech must take a back seat to protecting the delicate ears of our eight and ten year old children.

(Cue laugh track)

 

Ready for Christmas 2015

I am looking forward to just three days of work this week followed by a four-day holiday weekend.  Our shopping is done, and yesterday we finished the wrapping.

Wrapped Gifts

Our staging area in the corner of the kitchen with some of the gifts for the nieces and nephews.

Meanwhile, at work, we are eating ourselves into a coma, courtesy of an annual event officially known as A Taste of the Holidays but which most of us refer to by its nickname, Waddle Week.  On Friday alone, I stuffed myself with fried potatoes, chips and salsa, popcorn, and fresh blackberries and raspberries.  For me at least, the pièce de résistance was the vegan cupcakes prepared by one of my coworkers.  Thank you so much, May!

All this followed our holiday luncheon on Thursday.  Although I checked in advance and knew there would not be any vegan food, I brought my own and had a grand old time eating, chatting and participating in a gift exchange with my cohorts.

While last year’s Christmas was fairly subdued at work, this year we held a holiday decorating contest that turned the entire floor into a raucous, delightful amalgam of holiday-related themes.  I present just a few for your holiday enjoyment.

International Gingerbread Lane

1

3

4

Holiday Movie Marathon

7

8

9

Candyland

10

O Christmas Tree – Our secretary’s handiwork and winner of the door contest.  Go, Linda!

Karen's Door

My cubicle wall.  Clearly, I lack the artistic abilities of my coworkers!

Peace

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year to all!  Thanks for reading and for another wonderful year on A Map of California.

 

Retirement? No, Thank You

A couple of weeks ago at work we had a very nice retirement party for one of my coworkers who had been with our agency for 25 years.  She told us how much she was looking forward to spending more time with her grandchildren.  Most of all, however, she was excited about not having to work.

So many people can’t wait to retire, and I wish them well.  But I have a hard time imagining freely choosing not to go to work anymore.  Having experienced two year-long spates of unemployment, I am not particularly enamored of staying home.  Perhaps this is because I had no income and stood in line for handouts from food banks, some of which was so rotten that we had to throw our gifts away.  Perhaps I’d have a different point of view if I were receiving regular pension checks.  Perhaps I’d see things in another light if I had a reasonable chance of retiring without being utterly destitute.

My sister was a housewife and mother for a couple of decades before she walked out on her husband when her kids were teenagers and suddenly found herself thrust into the world of work.  She was unprepared for any type of career and ended up spending most of her divorce settlement on going back to school.  Like me, she knows that she can never retire.  She says she’s fine with it, however.  “I had 20 years of retirement when I was young,” she tells me.

I don’t know that retirement is a good thing at all.  On one hand, my parents have been retired for nearly 25 years and seem to like it just fine.  On the other hand, I often see articles like this one by one of my favorite bloggers, Michael Lai, that asks the question whether early retirement is equated with early death.  I suppose the jury is still out on that one, as the studies seem to yield conflicting findings.

It is said that a lack of intellectual stimulation can cause brain function to atrophy.  With that in mind, one might say that thriving in retirement is a function of keeping busy with things other than work.  As Michael mentions, many of us have our entire identities tied up with our work, leaving us floating in space once that tether is cut.  This may be one reason that those who have devoted much of their lives to family responsibilities and maintain strong family bonds have an easier time of it in retirement than those who have little in the way of social connection.

At one point during my most recent period of unemployment, I began wondering whether I should just consider myself retired and leave it at that.  We’d be poor, but we’d scrape together enough to subsist somehow.  After all, who wants to hire a fiftysomething with outdated technical skills who hasn’t worked in a year?  It seemed that accepting myself as retired might make me feel less of a loser than I did when I applied for hundreds of job openings and got nowhere fast.

Now that I’m working again, I’m actually glad that I’ll never be able to retire.  If I could, I might be tempted to do so, and I know that it would not be a good thing for me at all.

Yes, I enjoy going to work every day.  It’s not always a bed of roses, but it does give me a sense of purpose.  As I admitted at a recent staff meeting, I am grateful for having a job that allows me to make a positive difference in the lives of others.  Would I be able to achieve the same thing doing volunteer work in retirement?  Perhaps.  But it is a special feeling to know that not only am I a member of a profession that allows me to help others, but that I’m good enough at it to be well-paid for the privilege.

About a year ago, I had a philosophical disagreement with one of my coworkers about retirement.  He insisted that retirement is ideal, because it allows you to pursue personal interests rather than having work sucking up all your time.  I suppose this is true if one’s personal interests are diametrically opposed to what one does for a living.  I once had an employee on my team who was a cage fighter and another who raised geckos.  I must admit that such pursuits are a long way from working in the legal world.  However, a very different picture emerges when one’s vocation and avocation are more closely related.  I have plenty of hobbies that I pursue in the evenings and on weekends.  I build my vacations around them.  And as much as I enjoy them, I don’t think I’d want to work at them “full time.”  It’s good to have some degree of balance in life, and I am fairly sure I wouldn’t have that if I were not steadily employed.

I don’t know whether it’s true that one can expect to die within a few years of retiring, but I’d really rather not find out personally.  Instead, I’d prefer to continue experiencing the joy of working.  And, yes, I do include the endless meetings, the time pressure and deadlines, the bosses and the coworkers, the paperwork and the politics.  This lends a richness to my life that no amount of devotion to my hobbies ever could.  I just hope that I’m able to remain healthy enough to keep getting up in the morning, putting on a tie and doing it again and again.

I guess you could say I’m just an old cowboy who’ll die in the saddle with a smile on his face.

 

So I’m a Vegan. How Do I Explain This to a Teenager?

The Vegan Files

My teenaged niece has expressed interest in learning about the vegan lifestyle.  As honored as I feel, I’m not sure I even knew that being a vegan is a lifestyle.

I recommended a book.  I told her about some websites.  But it turns out that she wants to know more about the reasons that I’ve committed myself to such a “difficult” way of life.  I am flattered that I’ve made such an impression, but I find myself at a total loss for what to tell her.

When we were together at a church event a few weeks ago, I told her a little bit about what factory farms do to chickens.  She just stared at me, clearly horrified.  The experience gave me chills.

It’s true that just out of sight are the bloody slaughterhouses that bring us our steaks, burgers and chicken.  It’s true that nursing calves are routinely separated from their mothers, that cows are kept pregnant constantly to make more beef and dairy cattle.  It’s true that it’s all about money.

Yes, I want my niece to know about these things, but this is not how I want to explain why I am a vegan.  She thinks that it must be so hard to give up things like Big Macs, beef tacos, cheese and ice cream.  But I don’t want her to think that doing the right thing means making painful dietary sacrifices.  On the contrary, I want her to see that, for me, being a vegan is an act of love.

At work this morning, I overheard a conversation between two young ladies that went something like this:

“Are you still on that vegan diet regimen?”

“Yes!  And it’s been a whole week!”

I grinned and kept walking.  There it goes again, I thought, the association of vegans with martyrdom and exceptional will power.  If only they knew how easy it is, I thought, as I heated up my lunch of veggie dogs smothered in soy cheese.

Later in the day, we held a going away celebration for a retiring coworker.  An enormous sheet cake covered in billows of whipped cream was presented.  I was offered a slice by several people and I declined each time.  No one can believe that I have the fortitude to resist cake.  Should I blow my cover and tell them that some of Duncan Hines’ cake mixes and frostings are vegan?  Should I let them keep thinking that I have the superhuman power to avoid sugar?  Or should I let them in on the secret that Oreos are vegan and so are the heavenly oatmeal raisin cookies sold by Trader Joe’s?

Last year, I stayed away from the company’s Thanksgiving pot luck, knowing that it would be very uncomfortable having everyone comment on the fact that I wasn’t eating.  This year, I plan to attend.  Now that I’ve been there for a while, many of my coworkers know that I’m a vegan.  I don’t think anyone will bat an eye when I show up with my own food in a little plastic container.  I will spoon it out onto a plate, grab a drink and sit down to eat with my fellow employees.  And I will undoubtedly endure a chorus of “Ooo, what’s that?  I didn’t see that on the buffet.”  That, mes amis, is tofu with mushrooms.  If you dare make a face, I will recount the gory details of where your drumstick and white meat came from and make you barf.

Sigh.  This is definitely not the idea that I want to relay to my young niece.  She might go vegan one of these days, or perhaps she won’t.  If she does, she’ll have plenty of time to experience the prejudice, the stares, the incredulity and the explanations that vegans are called upon to give over and over and over again.

For now, however, I’d like her to know that for those of us who love this planet, for those of us who love our bodies, for those of us who have an ounce of compassion, for those of us who give a damn, being a vegan is the only rational choice in an increasingly insane world.

Tomorrow:  Certain food combinations are just disgusting!

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Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

I must admit:  Zappos knows how to have fun.  For Halloween, they held a bingo and donuts party for employees and held a scary film festival.  My hat is off to those lucky Zapponians who get to spend the holiday season working hard and playing hard.

Part 3 of a series.

Zappos Core Value #3:  Create Fun and a Little Weirdness

Yesterday, I discussed driving and embracing change.  Thinking about all the changes I’ve been a part of at my various places of employment, I would have to list changes in management, changes in technology, changes in procedure, even the time I had to lay off half my staff.  Surprisingly, however, one of the most difficult of all the changes I had to implement involved fun.

When I was a supervisor in a large call center, management decided to adopt the FISH Philosophy.  Based on the way the fishmongers at Seattle’s Pike Place Fish Market (it’s worth it to click that link just to see the photo of the customer kissing a huge fish) achieve happiness, the philosophy includes four basic tenets:  Be There, Make Their Day, Choose Your Attitude and Play.

I remember reading over the material I was given and being astonished.  The first three principles I could certainly understand.  But play?  Play?  At work?  It didn’t make any sense to me.  Play seemed like the exact opposite of work.  Children don’t have to work; they get to play instead.  Back in my education courses, the professors liked to spout the platitude “Play is the work of children.”

But we’re all adults here!  And we have a job to do!  Wouldn’t play take away from our mission of serving our customers?  Even after I viewed the video of the fishmongers throwing fish and making jokes with the customers, it all seemed just a bit over the top.  And how on earth would we translate this to a busy call center?  What exactly should we be throwing across the aisles and cubicles?  Surely not stinky fish!

Management gave the trainers little rubber fish to play with, and some of these found their way into the hands of the supervisors.  I actually had my team throwing these back and forth for a while, until the day that I myself accidentally hit an operator in the head with one while she was on a call.  Fortunately, she was a good sport about it.

There had to be another way to “play at work.”  When the supervisors and trainers put our heads together, we eventually came up with things like holding little parades to acknowledge accomplishments, hosting cubicle decorating and trivia contests and choosing a silly word of the day.  Pizza, Krispy Kremes, candy.  Just little things to lighten the mood.  If you’ve ever worked in a call center, you know how desperately this is needed.

When you work in law and government, as I have done for the past decade, play seems to factor out of the process.  The conservative nature of these fields makes me wonder if the denizens thereof were deprived of a play gene in utero.  Were they ever kids?

I am encouraged by the stories I regularly read about the way play has been incorporated into the workplace within the tech industry.  My nephew, who is an engineer in Silicon Valley, confirms that there are ping pong, foosball and air hockey tables, hallways turned into putting greens, impromptu hackey sack games, employees sliding down a firehouse pole instead of using the stairs, and employees’ dogs who are there so regularly that everyone knows them by name.  It pains me to think that I am missing out on this stuff.

In the words of Dick Van Dyke, “I am a child in search of his inner adult.”

Business journals like to write about how the youngest generation of employees, the millennials, expect these kind of distractions and diversions.  I say why not?  And even though I am a COG (Certified Old Guy), I too would like to participate in such good times at work.  For one thing, it would be a huge stress reliever.  For another, why should the younger crowd have all the fun?  Hey, wait for me!  Geezers just wanna have fun! (If you’re reading this, Cindy Lauper, forgive me.)

My knees may not allow me to skateboard down the corridor anymore, but I promise I will whip your butt at ping pong (or run out of breath trying).

And don’t roll your eyes if I break out into song right at my desk.  If I try to imitate George Strait and it comes out sounding more like a croaking frog, please feel free to lob wadded up paper at me.  It won’t stop me, though.  Oh, and if you can’t hear my caterwauling, just look for the workstation decorated all in orange, a color that never fails to lift my spirits.

Are you listening, Zappos?

Tomorrow:  Core Value #4 – Be Adventurous, Creative and Open-Minded

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What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up?

A question posted online recently captured my attention in a big way.  It went something like this:  “If you could have any job in the world, what would it be?”

I was surprised when my guts began churning and a flood of emotions washed over me.  So many memories.  So many “what ifs.”  So many “if onlys.”

What would my ideal job be?  Oh, please don’t ask me that.  Ask me anything else, but not that.  It’s just too embarrassing.

It sounds like a warped job interview question, something the production manager or the HR lady sadistically throws at the poor applicant in an attempt to throw him or her off kilter and assess “thinking on your feet” skills.

In fact, I was asked this question during a job interview once, many years ago.  The interviewer added “anything but the job you are applying for, that is.”  Of course.  There would be no point in enduring suck-ups who provide the obvious answer.

As a self-professed “word freak,” I told the interviewer that I have long been fascinated by etymology and would, in my dreams, be the editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.  What happened after that was not pretty.  Believing I had said “entomology,” the interviewer thought I was into insects.  As far as the OED, he told me that he had one of those on his desk.  I was sure he was lying, as I knew full well that the OED consists of 20 thick volumes.  (I had not yet heard of the compact edition.)  Then he admitted to me that he’s really like to be a rock star.

Oh.

Need I add that I did not get that job?  I’m probably better off, too.

The loaded question about “your ideal job” has been around just about forever, and I don’t see it going away anytime soon.  When I was in college in the 1980s, pondering what the hell I was going to do after graduation with a degree in English and political science, the popular question (courtesy of the Richard Nelson Bolles book) was “what color is your parachute?”  Today, I suppose, we would say (courtesy of young crooner Kacey Musgraves) “follow your arrow wherever it points.”

Turn the dial on the ol’ Wayback Machine a few years earlier.  Everyone from my grandparents to my aunts and uncles to my parents’ friends and our next-door neighbors posed the same question to me at one time or another:  “What do you want to be when you grow up?”

Every kid gets asked that question.  I used to think it was a way of testing the kid’s mettle, to find out how big he or she can dream.  Or maybe it’s just a way of making small talk, an adult’s way to start a conversation with a child when the adult doesn’t really know how to relate to kids and has no idea of what else to say.  It’s the old tried-and-true.  It’s the question that’s expected.  Now that I’m an old guy, and more jaded than I like to admit, I suspect that many adults ask kids this question to get a good laugh at the outrageous response they might receive.

If a shy kid greets this question with silence, the follow-up may well be something like:  “Policeman, fireman or Indian chief?”  (In the upper middle class suburban world in which I was raised, the question would more likely have been:  “Doctor, lawyer or Indian chief?”)

Seriously, what is it with Indian chiefs?  I was born much too late to have heard of Tonto and the Lone Ranger, although I have vague, fuzzy memories of watching old westerns with my grandpa when I was four or five years old.

It seems like a humorous anachronism now.  Today, if you used the phrase “Indian chief,” the image that would come to my mind would be of a CEO in Mumbai.  Not a bad career choice, come to think of it.

Well, what I wanted to be when I grew up was really rather boring.  I wanted to be a librarian.

I was enamored with books and retain vivid memories of an embarrassing incident in which I walked right into the office of the director of the public library and asked him for a job.  I was ten years old.

To the guy’s credit, he quizzed me on the Dewey Decimal System, a test which I summarily failed.

“Being a librarian doesn’t mean you get to read books all day,” my mother patiently tried to explain.  Duh!  Everyone knows that.  Librarians get to push the little cart around and tell people where the periodical room is and shove library cards under that little machine with the bright light that makes a copy with the due date stamped on it.

I started telling people that I wanted to be a teacher like my Dad.  It was safer.  Also, it was less of a sissy answer.  Everyone knew librarians were old ladies with their hair put up in buns.

What I do for a living today is far more boring than being a librarian.  I am a manager in the government service.  Pass the white bread and the vanilla ice cream.

I’ve spent years as a supervisor and manager in both the public and private sectors, during which time I’ve had ample opportunity to reflect upon career paths, recruiting and the interview process.  On several occasions, I found myself in the position of reviewing stacks of job applications and then conducting dozens of interviews.  I learned to take good notes, because after a while it becomes difficult to remember one candidate from another.  Perhaps someone stands out because they tell me a funny joke, once worked as a lion tamer or show up at the interview with really big hair.  But mostly it’s just a chorus line.

These days, I consider myself reformed.  I am rarely involved with hiring anymore, and when I am, I don’t ask candidates what their ideal job would be.

For one thing, it’s too painful.  That is, the ridiculous answers you get are too painful to bear.  And you can’t even laugh!  You have to keep your serious supervisor’s face on, nod and say something profound like “Well, that’s different!”

Mostly, however, you just get boring answers about wanting to work “in the helping professions” (Query:  Is there such a thing as “the hurting professions?”) or wanting to give back to the community or to make a real difference in society.

Sigh.  My eyes grow misty as I recall the many times I’ve spewed out such chewed-over platitudes to prospective employers.  Even when it’s true, it always comes out sounding just a little bit insincere.

Okay, I’ve put it off long enough.  It’s time to fess up.  My ideal job, what I’d really love to do more than anything else I can think of, is to be . . .

A customer loyalty team representative in Zappo’s call center.

Yep, you read that right.  I want to don a headset, surf the Net like a wild man in search of bargains and answers and make customers insanely happy all day/night.

And much as this is the object of my desires, I can unequivocally guarantee that I will never have this job.  More on that in a little while.

Now, why would I want such a job?  I’m glad you asked.  It’s not out of some goggle-eyed fantasy, I assure you.  I worked in a call center for years, so I know the drill.  Most of my coworkers hated it and got out as soon as they could.  I stuck around for nearly nine years.  It’s where I met my wife and it was one of the best times of my life.  I’d do it all again in a minute.

My niece works in a call center and often makes vague references to the difficult customers she is forced to deal with, the time constraints she faces on each call and the constant threat of Quality Assurance listening in with a critical ear.

Bring it on, I say!

Satisfying the customer at the other end of the phone line, even the one who has a beef with the company and decides to cuss me out, brings a smile to my face and joy to my heart.  I am the weirdo who glories in turning the frown upside down.

But why Zappo’s?  Oh my goodness, where do I begin?  Sorry, I’ll try not to gush too profusely.

First, Zappo’s operates on a holacratic model, which basically means that it’s about the work, not about the person.  There are no titles; roles overlap and morph with business needs.  Employees get to use their skills in a variety of areas rather than being stuck doing just one thing until they get “a promotion.”  It’s about getting things done, not stroking egos.  The idea is entirely refreshing.  You can read more about holacracy here.

Then there are Zappo’s ten core values.  I will list them here so that you can get some idea of why I’ve gone a little bit gaga over selling shoes and apparel:

  • Deliver WOW through service
  • Embrace and drive change
  • Create fun and a little weirdness
  • Be adventurous, creative and open-minded
  • Pursue growth and learning
  • Build open and honest relationships with communication
  • Build a positive team and family spirit
  • Do more with less
  • Be passionate and determined
  • Be humble

I’m told this is not for everyone, but I find it a bit difficult to imagine why anyone would not want to work for such a company.

Pursue growth and learning:  Yes!  I consider myself a lifelong student, I always want to obtain more schooling, I read omnivorously.

Be adventurous, creative and open-minded:  Yes!  No more being a square peg wedged into a round hole.  Try your latest idea without fear of failure!  Then try something else!

Be passionate and determined.  Be humble.  They’re talking about me!

There are other little things, too.  Zappo’s has a 24-hour call center, and I am an inherent night owl who enjoys working weird hours.  Switching shifts every so often to meet business needs doesn’t faze me.  I find it exciting!

The fact that the staff is always up to fun stuff like parades through the call center and silly games and contests — That’s what adds joy to one’s work life.  It’s what keeps people forever young.  That’s what builds the same kind of loyalty to an employer that the employees wish to instill in their customers.  It’s the WOW, it’s what makes their day.

So why haven’t I packed up and moved to Las Vegas yet?  There are a number of obstacles to doing that, but only one that I simply cannot overcome and will never be able to overcome.

I cannot survive on $11 per hour.

Even on $15 an hour, I simply couldn’t make ends meet.  I only wish Zappo’s had been around when I was fresh out of college, 21 years old and back home with my parents, wondering what on earth to do next.  No rent, no utilities, no food bills, nothing but putting gasoline in my rattletrap old car.  I started working for $5.50 an hour on the night shift, which even then was very little money.  If I could transport myself back to that time, and transport my parents’ home to the Nevada desert, I could happily indulge in the job of my dreams.

Those days are long gone, of course, decades in the past.  All that remains is the edges of a dream, a dream fueled by monthly “Zscoop” email reminders from Meli Gonzalez, social recruiting and engagement specialist at Zappo’s.  Like a junkie, I lap up these e-newsletters as a much desired fix.  And I try not to let it break my heart.  But it’s tough.

I know you don’t read this blog, Meli, but if you’re really out there, give an old guy a break and leave a comment telling me that a Zappo’s job paying a salary on which one can pay the bills just opened up and has my name written all over it.

Back in my day, there were all kinds of pop songs about unrequited love.  And this one is mine.

So good night, sweet Zappo’s. I’ll see you in my z’dreams.