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.

Lessons Learned from Children While Waiting on Hold

On the phone at work today, I found myself stuck on hold for nearly half an hour with a social service agency in a county about 300 miles away.  What surprised me was the recorded message that played over and over.  Actually, it was quite cleverly done.  But what I heard sent a chill up my spine.

The recording consisted of the voices of children, both girls and boys, of various ages, many of them extremely young.  One by one, they told their stories in a single sentence each:

“I am not a punching bag.”

“I need a place to call home.”

“I can’t reach my potential without you.”

“I am not a toy.”

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

And finally, the voice of a three year old.

“I need you.”

My eyes began to tear up, so I turned to face the window.  Um, you know, men just aren’t supposed to do that, and particularly not at work.

I felt like an idiot.  There I was feeling put upon because I had to sit on hold (and was getting paid for it), while just out of sight were children in desperate need of families, whose entire lives had been placed on hold, often for years.

For a very long time I had thought about adopting or becoming a foster parent.  Something always got in the way, however.  Either I was living in a tiny one bedroom apartment or I was working a zillion hours or I was with a woman who had no interest whatever in children.  Then the inevitable happened:  I got old and disabilities caught up with me, effectively eliminating any possibility of bringing a child into my life.

But dreams don’t fade away so easily.  They die hard.  So before I could close the cover on this particular book, I managed to convince myself to become a mentor with the Big Brothers program.  This was quite a few years ago, when we were living in Fresno in California’s Central Valley.  I was matched to a teenager who, despite multiple disabilities, managed to live a full and vibrant life.  This young man’s mental and emotional issues frequently threw me for a loop; he had suffered a traumatic brain injury in an auto accident at the age of two.  We usually got together for a few hours on the weekend and I never really knew what he would come up with.  We went out for breakfast or lunch (his favorite was Hometown Buffet, where he could eat me under the table), went to the movies, went to the video arcade, played board or computer games.  He taught me Dungeons and Dragons; I taught him Scrabble.

More than anything else, my friend taught me patience.  He used a hearing aid and was unable to gauge the volume of his own voice.  This could create embarrassing situations in quiet places like bookstores or movie theaters.  He was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and would regale me with his endless takes on theology and his beloved science fiction, often combining the two seamlessly.  He wanted to look at the porno room at the video store (and was disappointed when I wouldn’t let him in there) and, on a number of occasions, asked me questions that, um, I had to suggest that he redirect to his mother.  He never had a father.

I know perfectly well that I wasn’t much of a male role model for that year, but I guess it was better than nothing.  That’s the funny thing about kids:  They don’t judge you.  They just take you as they are.  They are appreciative of whatever time and attention you are able to give them.

They don’t care that you’re not perfect, because to them, you’re perfectly fine.  Somehow they don’t see your dents, your creases, your insecurities, your creaking bones.  They’re just glad that they mean enough to you that you keep showing up.  So you do.  Even when you don’t particularly feel like it.  Even when you want to sleep late because it’s Sunday and you were out at a party the night before.  Even when you just don’t want to deal with it today.

You get in your car.  And you go.  And you see his smile when you pull up to the place he and his mother call home in a dilapidated trailer park.

Then he gets in the car and you have to remind him to buckle up because he’s blurting out a joke that he’s been waiting three days to tell you.  It’s not even very funny, but he starts laughing uproariously and then you feel a smile slowly creep over your face and then you’re laughing too because your health problems and your messes at work and your money woes all fade away in an instant.

And you wonder who has given the gift to whom.

Oh, and by the way, they’re waiting for you.  Right now.  Boys and girls who need you desperately.

Call your county or city social service agency today.  Adopt.  Be a foster parent.  Be a Big Brother or Big Sister.

“I need a family.”

“I am not invisible.”

“I need you.”

The Purple Tree

purple tree

I drove into town to get the oil changed in our car today, and on the way home to the parsonage, I saw a family of six walking along the side of the road, every one of them decked out in red and white Santa hats.  Every last one of them, including the baby in the stroller.

Wow, so it’s really Christmas, huh?

As a New York boy, it never seems as if it’s really Christmas here in northern California.  The mild weather fools me every time.  With all the falling leaves, it feels more like October.

Sac fall color

I took this photo of downtown Sacramento’s fall color from halfway up the office tower in which I am currently employed.

All in all, this was quite a week.  We started out on Sunday with brunch at one of our favorite Mexican restaurants.  They have veggie fajitas right on the menu . . .

fajitas

. . .which I proceeded to make into tacos, thanks to the vegetarian black beans.

veggie tacos

This may not seem like such a big deal, but believe me, it is.  It’s delightful for once not to have to ask the server to have the cook make up something special, and no butter (no, not even margarine), and by the way, what type of oil do you cook with?  Congratulations, you have instantly become a problem customer.  Just don’t admit to being a vegan, whatever you do.  Better pretend to have severe food allergies.  Or tell them that you’re an Orthodox Jew and have to follow the kosher rules.  Hope they don’t ask you where your “Yamaha” is.  (Out in the parking lot, doofus.  It’s the one with the twin cams and the Star of David).

Monday was pay day, also a big deal when you only get paid once a month.  Pay bills, pay tithes, buy groceries, figure out the budget for the month.  If you really want that vegan coconut milk “ice cream” that costs four and a half dollars for a thimbleful, now’s the time to speak up.  Next week, there won’t be any money for it.  (Don’t cry, there’s always next month.)

Monday was also the first day back at work from our four-day break (Thanksgiving is the one and only time of year that we have one).  Down came my paper turkey from the dollar store and up went my purple Christmas tree, of similar pedigree (see photo above).  Matching purple bows were pinned up both inside and outside my tiny cubicle domain. Fa la la la la…

Although it rained for most of the trip down to and back from the Central Valley for my father’s 81st birthday last weekend, my coworkers report that there was barely a sprinkle here.  Tuesday, however, the heavens opened up over Sacramento.  The entire area instantly turned into a big soggy mess.  “The crops really need it,” I would hear a dozen times a day.  “Finally, a break in the drought.”

moon

As I left work on Tuesday evening, the nearly full moon attempted to show itself through the mass of clouds that had been watering the fields and roadways all day.

By Wednesday, immense puddles had formed all over the area.  We had a brunch at work for an employee returning from maternity leave.  I was able to help myself to orange juice and fresh fruit, and I brought in bagels for everyone to enjoy (along with some hummus as my personal substitute schmear for the cream cheese).

I wanted pasta and hot soup for dinner, so I asked my wife to bring Pastor Mom along when she picked me up from work.  We had a wonderful dinner (“Yes, the cook says we can make the sauce without cheese.  Yes, you can have olive oil instead of butter with the bread.”) and made our way northward toward home without incident, despite the continuing rain.

Thursday morning, many of my coworkers reported that they had a heck of a time getting home.  One person who works on my floor talked about having seen four cars literally floating down the freeway.  Welcome to California.  Dry or wet, it’s always a disaster.

At noontime on Thursday, it was still pouring down rain, but in the early afternoon the clouds parted a bit and the sun struggled to come out.  One by one, we all began to wander over to the picture window on our floor to gawk.  We were treated to this:

double rainbow

The photo does not begin to do this double rainbow justice.  It was a huge arc that gave the appearance of wrapping all of Sacramento in a giant embrace.  This was among the largest rainbows that I had ever seen, and I couldn’t help thinking that this was what Noah saw when God promised never again to destroy the world by flood.  Brighter times ahead.  Yes!

Thursday evening, we all took my sister-in-law out for her birthday.  We had a wonderful time (veggie tacos, hooray!), my niece and nephews showed up, and my two year old grandniece was in high spirits.  She wouldn’t stay in her high chair very much, so we passed her from hand to hand and only had to run after her once when she made her way down the steps and headed toward the restaurant exit.  When it was time to leave, our dear little one, entirely unprompted, offered each of her hands to my wife and myself.  Hold my hand and walk with me, auntie and uncle.  I will cherish this photo forever, my friends.

Hayden Donna Aron

Thursday night, I went to bed a happy boy.  And so, life being what it is, things proceeded directly from the sublime to the ridiculous.

Friday.  Finally, the end of the week had arrived, so let’s go out with a bang, now shall we?  I won’t get into the details of the Friday follies that transpired at work (I am shaking my head just thinking about some of it) other than to describe the celebration we had in honor of the birthday of one of my coworkers.

On Thursday, some people were out, and those who were at work couldn’t decide whether we should have a brunch for my coworker or take her out to lunch.  The last I had heard, it was decided that it was too last minute to do anything.  And then on Friday, as noon approached, I was informed that we would be bringing in Vietnamese pho for lunch to celebrate my coworker’s special day.  Did I want beef or chicken?

Nooooo, not again!  I happened to be working away in my cubicle at the time, crunching on fresh radishes (hot ones!) dipped in hummus.  “I don’t eat meat at all,” I explained.  “I’m a vegan.  See? This is what I eat.  Carrots, radishes, hummus.”

“Oh, I was a vegetarian for six months once,” came the reply.  “Maybe just the noodle soup without the meat?”

Sometimes you don’t know whether to laugh or cry.

Also, we had a meeting at which my boss (who is among the best supervisors I have ever had and whom I appreciate dearly) announced that he has found another job and is leaving.

I think I’ll go with crying.

And, uh, merry Christmas.

A Vegan Does Thanksgiving at Work

leaves

In most of the United States, the leaves are off the trees and winter has set in.  But here in northern California, November is the height of autumn.

Thanksgiving is generally the worst day of the year for vegans.  As if everyone eating turkey weren’t bad enough, most of the so-called trimmings aren’t fit to eat for those of our ilk.  In my case, I am extremely blessed to have a wife who humors my prandial proclivities.  She always prepares something for me in advance, which we carry to our family functions.

But tomorrow is our annual Thanksgiving pot luck up in the penthouse at work, which I anticipate with more than a bit of trepidation.  The turkey and gravy is being provided, with employees bringing the fixings.  I hope I don’t end up having to discuss veganism, but I don’t know that there will be much way around it.

I can just see it now:  “Have some turkey, there’s plenty!”

“Um, no, thanks.”

“Why not?  It’s Thanksgiving!”

“Um, I don’t eat meat.”

“Ohhhh, that explains it.  Well, have some mashed potatoes!”

“Thanks so much, but not right now.”

“Why not?  There’s no meat in that.”

“Milk and butter.”

“You can’t have dairy either?  Oh, you poor thing!”

“Yeah, I’m vegan.”

“Really?  Well, have some green beans.  Have some sweet potato casserole.”

“Bacon.  Dairy.  Sorry.”

“Aren’t you going to eat anything?  At least have some pumpkin pie!”

At which point I bolt for the elevators, heading back to my cubicle to get some work done.  Hopefully, by that point, many of my coworkers and bosses will have seen me, so that I’ll have made an official “appearance.”

I’ve been trying to think of alternatives.  I could bring my lunch with me along with my usual gallon of iced lemon tea in my big handle bag that I pull behind me.  I could bring a sandwich or a plastic container of tofu and vegetables up to the penthouse with me.  Perhaps if I dump the contents onto a paper plate, it will look as if I’ve helped myself from the buffet.

Alternatively, I could hide out in my cubie and hope that no one notices my absence.  The last time I tried this tactic (at another employer), it blew up in my face.  “Your absence was noticed,” my boss informed me frostily the next day.  I was officially “not a team player.”

I suppose I could always take a sick day.  Three-day weekend, anyone?

Update: I did not attend the event, instead opting to hide out in my cubicle with my lunch brought from home and get some work done.  Several of my coworkers did the same.  No one has complained.

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Bridges and Ferries

November has always been one of my favorite months of the year, despite the bad reputation it gets for the bare, leafless trees and the cold winds that serve as harbingers of winter.  To me, November is all about celebrations.

When I flip up the October page of the calendar and stare at glorious November, a goofy grin appears on my face.  The holiday season hath begun!  I feel no compulsion to wait until Black Friday.  I now feel license to put on the holiday music without feeling like an utter goofball.  Granted, I’ve been known to do this in March or August if the mood strikes, but then then it’s a guilty pleasure.  Now I can finally feel appropriate.  And so I revel in the Home Alone soundtrack on my headphones, the precision of the orchestration so incredible that, if I close my eyes, I can see John Williams waving his baton at the horns and strings.

For me, November is a month of anticipation.  As a kid, I would relish the approach of Thanksgiving, an opportunity to stuff myself with abandon.  And right after that, we’d be celebrating my father’s birthday, and you know what that means.  Cake!

Now that I am once again a member of the workforce, November is prized (at least by employees of the State of California) as the only month in which the calendar features three paid holidays.  First, we have the day off for Veterans’ Day on 11/11, then we have not one, but two days off for Thanksgiving.  This represents the only time of year at which I have four consecutive days off without the necessity of burning a vacation day.  That’s just enough time to celebrate with my wife’s family here and then head down to the Central Valley to celebrate with my own family as well.

December may be feted as the premier holiday month, but we state employees have only a single paid holiday then, on Christmas Day.  In every place I’ve worked, there has always been much discussion about the possibility of cadging days off for Christmas Eve and New Year’s Eve.  Some of my employers have allowed staff to leave two or three hours early on those days while being paid for the full day.  A few have even expressed their holiday generosity by granting staff a half-holiday, a full four hours off.  I’ve also worked in 24/7 businesses where such largesse is not possible.  That’s when the jockeying for vacation days begins.  Those with seniority put in for those days at the earliest possible opportunity.  When I was a manager, I would have staff make weak attempts at reserving Christmas Eve off some six months in advance.  I’d have to tell them to see me again in about four months or so.

This year, holiday scheduling turned up as a staff meeting subject back in September.  It’s not the eves of Christmas and New Year’s that are the issues this time around, but the days after those holidays.  The calendar informs me that Christmas and New Year’s each fall on a Thursday.  That means that the corresponding Fridays are regular workdays.  Hence, the mad scramble to lock down vacation days and secure two consecutive four-day weekends.

It seems to me that the logical thing to do in this situation would be to treat Christmas and New Year’s just as we do Thanksgiving:  Give everyone a paid day off on the day after.  Say “happy holidays” with the gift of a pair of long weekends and plenty of time to spend with family and friends.

The French have seen the wisdom of this course of action stretching back decades.  Any time a public holiday falls on a Thursday, the next day is a holiday as well.  They call this maneuver faire le pont (“making the bridge”) and refer to the extra day off as le jour férié (“the ferry day”).

I think the French have the right idea.  We often call upon “bridges” and “ferries” not only as a literal method of making physical crossings between the mainland and the islands, but also as a metaphor for making connections between people in a multicultural, multilingual world.  And as we approach the time of year when we bow our heads in thanks and celebrate the joys of family, I urge that more employers consider creating those bridges and ferries that will give their loyal employees the concentrated time off they need to recharge their batteries and remind themselves why they are working in the first place.

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Revenge of the Carnivores

I find it interesting that some people find vegetarians annoying.  And when it comes to vegans, it’s even worse.  We are pegged as morally superior, self-righteous food snobs who not only harbor deep-seated psychological problems that prevent us from enjoying the finer things in life, but who are also sanctimonious creeps who insist on making our carnivorous brethren feel bad about their dietary choices.

I have noticed that this animosity toward the veggie community has begun to generate something of a backlash among the meat-eaters.  I first got a whiff of this several years ago, when Jessica Simpson appeared for a photo shoot in a T-shirt emblazoned with the logo “real girls eat meat.”  Then Lady Gaga appeared on the MTV Video Music Awards in her now famous meat dress.  While this was likely created for its shock value and was more in the nature of a career-boosting publicity stunt than anything else, I suspect that, at some level, it was a pie in the face of vegetarians.

Nowadays, there are some carnivores out there who appear so intent on advertising their love of meat that they feel compelled to make public displays of it.  For example, I have now twice seen people wearing shirts bearing logos announcing “All God’s creatures have a place in this world:  Right next to the potatoes and gravy.”  Assuming that the wearers of this apparel are also God’s creatures, I have to restrain myself from asking them just when they intend to become an entrée.  I really want to know this so that I can stay as far away as possible from the secret cannibals among us who enjoy partaking of such a feast.  With Halloween coming up, I suppose anything is possible, right?

Then I visited the family restaurant chain Red Robin (where I routinely eat a lettuce-wrapped Boca vegan patty) and saw this displayed on the lobby wall:

Red Robin

I’ve always been told that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, so perhaps there is some logic in the idea that the truest bovine love is manifested among devotees of the hamburger.  I have visions of them marching out into the pasture with knives and forks just to salivate.  (You can find me in the next field over, doing the same thing among the soybeans.)

Then, of course, there are the dimwitted/insensitive remarks that folks innocently or not so innocently make when they learn that you don’t eat meat.  This has led to more than a few postings online about ways to piss off/annoy a vegetarian, some of them from the veggie community (poking fun or venting at the stupid things people say) and others from the carnivore community (ways to get back at your neighborhood holier-than-thou vegan).  You can find a few of these here, here, here and here. (I particularly like the last one for its mention of Red Robin’s insensitivity.)

So what’s a vegan to do?  I thought of buying a PETA T-shirt, but when I Googled that, I found this.  Some days you can’t win for losing.

My current dilemma is how to “come out” as a vegan at work.  I eat at my desk daily, in the privacy of my own cubicle, so I am able to keep my food choices relatively private.  No one really knows what I have in that plastic container I am toting to the microwave in the kitchen area.

The problem is that I work with a partying crowd.  It seems that there is a celebration of something every three or four days, and that it always involves food.  Welcome the new employees.  Welcome a supervisor returning from leave.  Say goodbye to an employee leaving the agency.  Meetings.  Potlucks.  It goes on and on.

It started on my first day at work, when everyone gathered to welcome me.  There were all kinds of cakes and cookies, but also some fruit and orange juice.  “Aren’t you going to eat?” I was asked as I poured myself a cup of juice.  “Juice is good,” I replied.  After a few minutes:  “You’re not eating anything?”  I took a strawberry.

One possible strategy is to just grab something, plead an approaching deadline and rush back to my cubicle.  Not wanting to appear antisocial, however, I have been trying to avoid this.  So this week, it happened again.  There were all kinds of cakes and cookies, along with bagels and cream cheese.  “Aren’t you eating?”  I groaned inwardly, grabbing half a bagel and holding it up to show that yes, I actually do eat.  Anyone giving even a cursory glance to my girth knows that I do.  And regularly.

I know it’s just a matter of time before I am going to have to fess up.  I’ve been trying to think of polite, politically correct ways to do this.  I think I’ll begin with “I have three strikes against me.  I’m diabetic, a Jew who keeps kosher and a vegan.”

Somehow I just know that this is going to blow up in my face.

You know that someone expressing intent curiosity will ask me why I am a vegan.  In the past, my wife has suggested that I say “it’s a personal decision.”  I like that approach very much.  But I also know that my very kind coworkers, whom I truly appreciate, will demand further details.  There will be no end to it.  I will become the resident vegan.

And then what will I do?  Will I explain about the health benefits of veganism?  Will I explain that I don’t believe in visiting death upon our fellow creatures to satisfy my palate and stuff my gut?  Will I explain about the shameful and cruel way that commercially farmed animals are treated?  Will I explain that I harbor a weird personal preference for not eating the flesh of rotting corpses?

Will I then be forever pegged as a morally superior, holier-than-thou, sanctimonious, self-righteous ass?  I really enjoy this job and would like to keep it for a while.  I would prefer to piss off as few people as possible.  But I know the day is coming when the tofu will hit the fan.

As I’ve heard said:  You can’t win, you can’t break even and you can’t get out of the game.

Lessons Learned from Working at Home

During the last two weeks of January and the first week of February, I earned some money performing contract work from home with the hope that the contract might turn into a permanent position.  It didn’t.

Although it didn’t work out the way I had hoped, at least this contract bought me some time.  Now my state unemployment benefits will take me into April instead of ending this month.  This is of critical importance since the U.S. Senate refused to approve federal unemployment benefit extensions on numerous occasions this year, then headed out of Washington until the summer.

As this was the first time I had worked a contract, it was a learning experience.  The following are among the lessons I learned:

Metamorphosis.  This works well for turning caterpillars into butterflies and Kafkaesque dreamers into giant cockroaches.  For the rest of us, however, let’s just say “it ain’t happening.”  When you take on a particular type of work, either you’re a job match or you’re not.  Sure, you can learn the day-to-day details and the particulars of an employer’s expectations as you go.  But a word person is not going to turn into a computer geek overnight, nor is the reverse likely to occur.  One’s background and temperament cannot be faked.  Wanting to get it right and trying hard are lovely, but they are not in themselves a recipe for success.  Yes, the vicissitudes of the American economy require us to constantly reinvent ourselves.  But there are limits.  Lesson learned:  Don’t try to be what you’re not.

The Plaza Diner factor.  Let me tell you a story.  We can call this “the parable of the Plaza Diner.”  When I was a child, I loved nothing more than the occasions on which my family would go out to eat.  In the days before Wal-Mart and mega malls, my parents would treat us to “all you can eat” fish fry on Friday night at The Skillet restaurant in the W.T. Grant Co. department store.  Then, after the mall came in, the area became more commercialized and diners began popping up all up and down Route 59.  I was thrilled when we got to eat at the Plaza Diner, where the menu was the size of a book and noodle pudding, pickled herring and feta cheese could always be found on the salad bar.  In fact, I loved it so much that I informed my parents that when I grew up, I was going to work there.  Lesson learned:  Just because you love the experience of a particular product or service does not mean you should work there.  You may find that it is not so lovely slaving on the back end to create the user experience you so enjoy as a customer.

Their end of things.  Every workplace has a culture, some more unique than others.  When you work remotely for a distributed company, the lack of a “real” workplace culture (you can’t meet your coworkers at the water cooler or knock on your boss’ door to float an idea that just came to you) may mean that the employer will attempt to create a synthetic one.  The distance factor results in communication via such electronic media as Skype and Internet Relay Chat, which seems exciting at first but can quickly become frustrating.  I found words on a screen to be a decidedly bipolar experience:  Either the discussion was so technical that I understood nothing, or my coworkers would leave me flummoxed by spontaneously breaking out into spasms of synthetic workplace culture.  The latter might take the form of an impromptu contest of wits to see who could make the best puns about coffee and tea or perhaps a request to post a photo of how you look right now, whatever you may be doing.  (If you don’t know how to create an HTML link to your photo that will work on the company’s message board system, you may as well have “Loser” tattooed on your forehead.)  This works for some, and more power to them.  For those such as myself, however, who are not programmers and are not quick on the draw with witticisms, “any way you look at it you lose” (with apologies to Simon and Garfunkel).  Lesson learned:  I am a conservative guy who wears a white shirt and a tie to work.  I don’t code and I don’t know any jokes.  Just leave me alone and let me do my job.  If I can figure how to do it, that is.

My end of things.  Working at home sucks.  There, I said it.  It’s supposed to be so wonderful because you can pick your own hours and work in your PJs and not have to sit in commuter traffic or pay for gasoline.  Plus, you don’t have to uproot your family and relocate to another state 2,000 miles away.  Sounds too good to be true, eh?  Trust me, it’s not wonderful.  Deceptive as the Siren song of telecommuting may be, it is not for everyone.  I particularly don’t recommend it when you’re working on a laptop set up in your living room while day care is being provided to a one year old.  If you live alone or you’re comfortable with hiding with your computer behind a closed bedroom door and ignoring all sounds emanating from the opposite side of said door, then go for it.  Lesson learned:  If you can concentrate enough to work effectively with Sesame Street blaring on TV, YouTube videos belching forth from a phone, visitors walking in and out, and a child having a conniption fit all at the same time, then working from home is clearly the way to go for you.  Otherwise, you’re just fooling yourself.

Your computer will hate you.  Performing contract work from home will generally require you to download or purchase all manner of software to bring your modus operandi into compliance with the employer’s standard operating procedures.  The company may insist upon this, but even if they don’t, you really, really need to use whatever software they’re using.  Don’t try to make do with what you already have, as the result will be endless frustration.  Before you load a pile of crap onto your computer, however, be sure that your computer can handle it.  Some programs are memory hogs, and if you don’t want your computer to slow down to a crawl that drives you insane, you’d better be sure there is enough free space available.  Also, be sure that all the software they throw at you is free of viruses and other little computer nasties.  Also, be sure to uninstall everything when the contract is done.  As I was performing said uninstall, my overburdened laptop decided that this was about as far down the road as it was willing to go and simply gave up the ghost.  I now have the pleasure of choosing between my mother-in-law’s desktop and my iPhone.  Lesson learned:  Have a computer dedicated to your contract work.  Don’t try to install and uninstall piles of software on your personal laptop unless you don’t mind losing everything when it throws in the towel in a binary fit of pique.