Work from Home, Baby Edition

Hayden at couch

As I’ve discussed in a number of previous posts, my wife and I provide day care for our grandniece while the little one’s mom attends college classes during the day.  Well, let’s be honest about it, my wife is the one who provides the day care.  I get to sit on the couch and play with the baby, sing to her, read to her, play endless repetitive games of her own devising.  My wife gets to do stuff like change dirty diapers (“You pooped again?! That’s the third time today!”), comfort the little one when she starts screaming her head off and won’t stop, and run around after her when she’s hell bent on mischief that’s bound to send someone to the hospital (the baby if she’s successful or my wife if she has heart attack).

Pastor Mom is heavily involved in this equation as well.  She and my wife share the child care duties because, well, it takes two adults to chase after a half-pint who has decided that she’s going to run amok today and that there’s nothing that anyone can do about it.

For the last two weeks, I’ve been taking a break from unemployment by doing some work for a tech company on a contract basis.  This involves being glued to my laptop for many hours per day.  My office?  The living room couch.  To say that this is a challenge with the little one here is an understatement.  For one thing, she wants to play with uncle and I feel bad when I have to tell her “I’m sorry, honey, uncle has to work right now.”

Then there is the matter of the noise level.  As I am working in an unfamiliar field, I spend quite a bit of time poring over documentation ranging from the mundane to the highly technical.  The point is that I have to concentrate sufficiently to understand the stuff, a difficult proposition at best when Hurricane Hayden is going on all around me.

When the little one gets particularly rambunctious (“She just won’t mind,” as Pastor Mom says), she goes in the playpen with her toys.  As you may imagine, she hates this.  Being just a few steps away from me, I will often stop what I’m doing during Playpen Time so that I can sing to her or play a game of “Boo!” from across the room.

When she gets out of jail, the little one loves to sneak up to the side table next to the couch and grab at the refreshments that I keep there.  Most of the time, I have a jug of iced tea, a bottle of lemon juice and a glass beside me, all of which she thinks are fair game.  As in “This is a pretty fair game!  Let’s see what we can dump over and spill all over the carpet!”  If I notice the little one standing there, I will lunge for tea, lemon juice and glass to pull them out of the way before disaster strikes.  I don’t always make it in time.  If I’m busy reading and typing, I may not see her out of the corner of my eye.  I may not notice at all until I hear my wife’s yelp, which is the signal for “Lunge!”

In my continuing effort to get my expected production done, I frequently eat lunch at the laptop.  This is the little one’s signal that it’s Sharing with Uncle time.  I will feed her a small piece of my tofu chicken or my veggie burger or whatever it is I’m eating.  Then she’ll happily run off to another part of the room, only to return about ten seconds later for more.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat.  Repeat ten more times.  By this time, I have to start reading my document from the beginning.

While the little one is here, we generally have videos of “Elmo’s World” running on our big screen TV.  She also has a Nabi, Jr., on which she will play the Veggie Tales song “Barbara Manatee” or “His Cheeseburger” over and over again.  As if it weren’t bad enough that both those songs grate on the nerves, the little one loves pushing buttons and will therefore rewind to play the same section of the song six or seven times in a row.  I’m pretty sure I can recite the lyrics in my sleep.

So, no, I don’t have to comfort a crying baby, make up bottles of milk or change dirty diapers.  But I daresay that you haven’t lived until you’ve had the pleasure of listening to the same “Elmo’s World” video you’ve already seen dozens of times while “Barbara Manatee” is playing in the background and the little one is throwing a fit.  Add to that parishioners and workmen walking in and out of the parsonage all day long and you’ll long for a nice quiet office where you can close the door and hear nothing but the occasional ringing of a phone.

But I’m not really complaining.  I’m glad we are my niece’s day care of choice.  How else would we get to spend so much time with the little one?  It may be tough to get any work done, but that’s the price I have to pay.

After all, I love the little squirt.

 

Metamorphosis

monarch

We are forever reinventing ourselves.

Even at my age, I feel a bit little like a hairy caterpillar, belly stuffed with macerated spring leaves, boldly curling up into my cocoon in a quest to emerge as something else.  I’ve had enough of this old, outdated mode, so let’s make it something quite different, okay?  Something, say, less hairy and hmm, maybe with a pair of wings?  Far-fetched, for sure, but you never know.  Give me a few weeks and let’s see what develops.

“I’ve been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn and a king.”  Ol’ Blue Eyes sure knew what he was talking about.

In my case, I’ve been a typesetter, a graphic artist, a desktop publisher, a secretary, a technical writer, a data entry operator, a telephone operator, a trainer, a first-line supervisor, a middle manager and a legal researcher.

And as I’ve walked along my journey from the halls of high school to the employee break room to the unemployment line, I’ve occasionally turned my head just in time to catch the corridors contract and the doors silently shut behind me.

In his masterwork, Catch-22, novelist Joseph Heller asked “where are the snows of yesteryear?”  And where are the ditto machines that spewed purple ink all over your hands and the paste-ups assembled at light tables with tri-squares, Exact-o knives and non-repro blue pens?  Where are the shiny galleys pulled out of the dryer on RC paper, ready to marked up with funny, squiggly symbols by the proofreader?  Where are the TTY users typing out their LED messages on a narrow one-line screen to a distant relay operator in half-English, half-American sign language?  Where are the Vydec and the Wang, the IBM Electronic Selectric Composer, the CompuGraphic EditWriter, dBase II and Wordstar?

Constant change is the only thing guaranteed not to change.  With rapid advances in technology comes the need to be flexible, to bend with the wind, to acquire new skill sets, to embrace new ways of doing and being, to metamorphose into something different and more beautiful.

The alternative is to be relegated to irrelevance and destitution.  As the saying goes, “you’re either green and growing or ripe and rotting.”

Or, as Douglas Coupland put it in his novel, Microserfs, “time to learn for real.”

Where once I could declaim knowledgeably about fonts and kerning, em-spaces and X-heights, and then about hearing carry over, speech-to-speech relay and VCO phones, and still later about preliminary hearings, felony arraignments and writs of habeas corpus, today I find myself in the strange new world of domain mapping, cascading style sheets and SQL queries.  It’s a foreign language and some days I feel as if I am an enemy spy who has been dropped in by parachute in the dead of night.

I am a stranger in a strange land.

And in this land, the only currency that’ll buy you anything is zeroes and ones.  And knowledge.

As one who was schooled in the liberal arts, I have been cast into the darkness with only the searching beam of a flashlight to find my way.

My most fervent prayer is that there is no truth to the adage that you can’t teach an old dog new tricks.

For I have many new tricks to learn.  And with a little luck, one day soon I will emerge from this decades old chrysalis, shake off the dew in a flutter of wings and proudly fly away.

 

Postcard from Another Life

postcard

Oh boy, this is going to be a tough post to write.  ‘Tis a bitter pill, my bloggy friends.

Many of you know that I was laid off from my job at the end of September.  The end of a job is a little like a death in the family.  Our work is a large part of our identities, and when we lose it, we lose a part of ourselves.  In this case, the “family member” (employer) had been mortally ill (broke) for some time.  We all had a pretty good idea that the layoffs were a-comin’, although we tried not to talk about it while we hoped in our hearts that some miracle would make its appearance to save us.  Half of my staff took the axe in mid-August and I had my turn at the guillotine about six weeks later.

Like any death, knowing that it is just a matter of time does not make it any easier once the day finally arrives.  The period of mourning always begins with shock and disbelief, eventually sliding through the phases of acceptance and moving on.

And then there are the family and friends who seek to console you.  They are so well-meaning, and in the name of consolation, the platitudes fly like snowflakes in January.  The appropriate response is to smile wanly and express your appreciation while you wonder what the hell you’re going to do now.

It is easy to criticize this attitude as being entirely too dramatic.  Losing a job is more like a bad breakup than a death, you say.  Perhaps this is so.  Family members can never be replaced, but you can always find another job.  Except that most of my employees have been unable to do so.  When you live in this economy in a remote town in the middle of the desert with the nearest small city being a hundred miles away, there is not much work close at hand.  Working likely means commuting three hours per day or else relocating, i.e., selling your house (good luck), uprooting your children and moving away from the place where you grew up and the family who serve as your support network.  Unemployment, here we come.  And when that runs out, God only knows.  Maybe you can get a part-time job at minimum wage at the K-Mart or at Del Taco or the new dollar store that just opened at the west end of town.

We were among the lucky ones.  We had nothing holding us in the desert and we were able to kick over the traces and move in with family 600 miles away.

So you try to put it behind you.  You try to forget about the people and the places.  You can’t help looking back on the good times you had, but you try not to dwell on it.  Time to lick your wounds and check out the other fish in the sea.

We start the healing process by removing the numbers from our smart phones:  The lady who sells tortillas down by the freeway, the place that services your car, your doctor, your dentist, your landlord, the supermarket, the guy who fixes your air conditioning when it breaks down in July, the people who mow your lawn and the ones who deliver water.  You’ve moved to another part of the state and this is your chance to start over.  You never have to think about these people again.

Then it happens.  You get a post card in the mail.  And it’s like a message in a bottle, a reminder of the life you’ve left behind, a bad dream.

In this case, the post card was from my former boss.  One side featured a lovely photo of a sunset bearing the label “San Diego.”  Since we just came off of a holiday weekend, I suppose that the boss had a three or four day mini-vacation at the beach.

So thank you for thinking of me, boss.  You say you hope that we are relatively settled in up north.  You say you hope that we keep in touch.

Sigh.

How should I respond to this?  Should I ignore the gesture?  Should I write back, and if so, what should I say?  If I were to respond, I suppose my own post card would go something like this:

Dear Boss,

 I know this whole thing wasn’t your fault.  I know the layoff was a money-saving measure dictated by upper management and that you had no control over it.  But I also know that we made a 1,200+ mile round trip the week after my layoff because I was invited to interview for another management position at a different location.  And that you were one of the three on the interview panel.  And that you pretended that I was Joe Schmoe who you’d never met before even though I worked my butt off for you for the past three years.  And that the only reaction I could get from you was the barest hint of a nod when I stared directly into your eyes.  I know that you were only doing your job, doing what is expected of you.  After all, you have your own job to protect.  But I guess you and your cronies decided that you’d be better off getting rid of me for good.  I know this because I received a computer-generated form email informing me that I was not selected for the position.  Cold, really cold.  And now you send me a card to say that you hope we are settled in the place to which we were forced to move.  Not to be rude or anything, but I think you have a hell of a nerve.

Were you motivated by guilt?  Do you feel bad about what happened to me and to my employees?  Do you want us to like you anyway and say “hey, forgive and forget, let bygones be bygones?”  What’s that? I’m being unnecessarily cruel?  You’re just trying to be kind? I am sorry, but I think it’s a little late for that.  We have already removed all those numbers from our phones, including yours.  We have moved on, just as I know you would want us to.  So please do not contact us further.  We have a new life now and you are just a bad reminder of the harrowing escapades that you have put us through.  Oh, and by the way, we honestly wish you best of luck in all your future endeavors.

Sincerely,

Your former employee

 

Night Moves

moon stars

Not working has allowed me to thumb my nose at daily routines and to indulge in my natural night-crawling tendencies.

My suspicions that the nighttime is the right time were aroused back in fourth grade, when I got in trouble after being caught at my desk well after midnight, drawing a detailed map of Canada and all its provinces. Not a school assignment, mind you, just something I felt like doing in the middle of the night.

In college, I figured out once and for all that my body’s Circadian rhythm is backwards vis-à-vis those of nearly everyone else.  In college, this is not a problem; studying or partying all night long is normal.  Once you graduate, however, you’re supposed to leave behind the foolish things of youth and join the rise-with-sun Puritan work ethic-inspired life of the business world.

Fortunately for me, I found a way around this problem by securing employment in an industry that never sleeps in the city that never sleeps.  Working in the composition rooms of various New York publishers and print shops, I got to work the swing or graveyard shifts for more years than a sane person probably should.  In the short days of winter, I remember going weeks at a time without seeing the sun.  This did not bother me in the least.  I am not one of those people who draws energy from the sun and suffers from seasonal affective disorder from Halloween to the first day of spring.  I’d probably be successful in the north of Alaska, where for half the year you don’t have to worry about the sun getting in your eyes.

I found that working at night does have its advantages.  You end up working with a bunch of other caffeinated night punks, most of whom are just as crazy as you are.  Likely as not, your coworkers may be doing something else during the day (other than sleeping), such as attending school, working another job or caring for children.  Night work also seems to attract a variety of creative types.  In my first job out of college, I spent several months as a team with another young guy, the two of us doing photo output of galleys under the red lights of the darkroom all night long.  He was from El Salvador and tried to teach me Spanish while I tried to teach him French.  We were both writers and regularly critiqued each other’s poetry, often translating it into other languages.

There were disadvantages, too.  When I worked the swing, some of my coworkers would say that getting off shift at midnight was still early enough to do anything but go out to dinner.  This is not true, of course.  You couldn’t wait for hours at DMV to renew your driver’s license, nor could you waste time and money at the department stores, nor could you visit Barnes & Noble or the public library.  As for going out to dinner, well, back east the diners are all open 24 hours a day, so a young guy or woman with a big appetite can get a full meal when he or she gets off shift at one or seven in the morning.  I thought I was cool when I’d order dinner while everyone else was eating breakfast.

Eventually, I found my way to California and one of the big phone companies, also a 24/7 operation, and fit right into the all-night groove where I knew I belonged.  There I met my wife, another inveterate night owl, while working the overnight shift.  ‘Twas a match made in heaven.  I’d like to say that we had a 2 a.m. wedding by the light of the silvery moon, but I would not be telling the truth.  City Hall wasn’t open at that hour.

For the past eight or nine years, however, I have been working regular 8 to 5 type hours at businesses that are only open in the daytime.  You can get used to almost anything, but it’s as unnatural to me as working in the wee, small hours of the morning probably is to you.  The fact is that I have always slept better in the daytime.  When the sun rises, just pull those curtains closed and I’m off to the land of winkin’, blinkin’ and nod.

Now that we’ve moved in with family in northern California, I feel an obligation to be awake during at least some of the daytime hours in order to interact with said family when they are up and about.  Accordingly, I try to get to bed somewhere between two and three a.m.  This makes it likely that I’ll be lucid before noon.

Saturday, for example, I knew I had to be ready by noon to attend my nephew’s singing competition.  The rest of the family was at a birthday party, and I agreed to go so that he’d have someone in the family to support him.  (He went on to the next round.  More about that later in the week.)  Sunday, I managed to drag my ass out of bed in time to attend church, after which I went out to lunch with my wife and her mother, sister and little grandniece.  As soon as we returned from lunch, however, it was nap time for me.  I could barely keep my eyes open.  I planned to catch a couple of hours of Zs and rejoin the family in the evening.  I woke up six hours later.

I’m hoping that my next gig is not only remote work that I can do from wherever I happen to be, but also results-oriented work that I can slave away at during the deep, dark, beautiful hours when the rest of the world is asleep and it’s just me and my music, with my fingers typing at top speed and my brain firing on all cylinders.  Inquiries from clients in Asia and Australia will be answered promptly via email or Skype.

Anyone hiring?

Le Dégraissage

layoff notice

I finally received my layoff letter today.  I knew it was coming, but it is still deflating to view one’s fate in black and white.  We all know that our days on this earth are numbered, but none of us expects to know the date of our demise in advance.

It’s kind of like a Dear John letter, or whatever the modern equivalent of breakup protocol might be.  A goodbye text maybe?  A public kissoff in the form of a tweet?  Instead of “it’s not you, it’s me,” you get “you are aware of our current fiscal challenges amidst the national economic downturn.”  Instead of “we’ll both be happier” and “it’s better this way,” you get “you may apply for state unemployment” and “we appreciate all your hard work during your tenure with the company.”  And instead of “I’ll never forget you,” you get “we sincerely wish you the best of luck in your future endeavors.”

I have 5½ weeks to go until I pack up my footrest, my tea mug and my peg game from Cracker Barrel and sign off my company email account for the last time.  At least I will receive a couple more paychecks before I join the ranks of this country’s great cadre of unemployed workers.

Many of my employees were not so lucky.  I have already lost half my staff; their last day was Friday.  Most of us went out to dinner at a local Mexican restaurant Friday night, both those who were leaving us and those who had high enough seniority numbers to stay.  Not everyone showed up, however.  A few were out of town and at least one was ill.  The poor guy couldn’t make it through his last day of work.  As for me, when I reach that day at the end of September, I just pray that I can make it out the door without crying.

Sure, three years is rather an investment in a company, one that arguably should preclude elimination of one’s job and summary expulsion.  And yet, I have no right to complain about a thing.  My employee who had to leave in the middle of the day on Friday had been with the company twelve years.  And, incredibly, another of my people received a layoff notice after 22 years of faithful employment. It seems a ridiculous understatement to say that there is no longer such thing as job security.

I’ve been reading Jonathan Fenby’s sociopolitical work France on the Brink, in which he discusses the large number of immigrants from Algeria and Morocco who crossed the Mediterranean to work for good wages in France’s heavy industry half a century ago.  Those jobs, once plentiful, are now gone, although the immigrants and two generations of their descendants are still there.  Many live in deplorable conditions in high-rise, high-crime mass housing projects.  As in the United States, Europe has moved from an agricultural economy, to an industrial economy, to the modern information economy.  Lack of updated skills, insufficient education and cultural and language barriers is a recipe for unemployment.  But I learned an interesting French term from Fenby that, these days, seems to apply equally to Toulouse and California:  Le dégraissage.  Literally, this word means “defatting,” but it is the modern term for “downsizing” or just plain “layoffs.”

My employer has defatted, and some of that fat is me.

There were at least two dozen of us at the Mexican restaurant, and we occupied two long tables.  At my table, we dipped our chips into the ubiquitous salsa and guacamole while we perused the menus.  As the burritos and enchiladas arrived, we witnessed a steady stream of margaritas being delivered to the other table.  An hour later, I could not help but notice the presence of extreme merriment over there, displayed in raucous laughter fueled by many bottles of beer and shots of tequila.

It had been a difficult day, during which I was required to collect photo ID bages and desk keys from employees who had been laid off.  We talked some about unemployment checks and job prospects and going back to school and becoming househusbands or stay-at-home moms.  But mostly we tried to pretend that it was just like any other workday, with customers to be served and paperwork to be completed.

My last employee left a few minutes after five, packing a box with her laptop, her water bottle and the framed photos of her kids that had sat on her desk, just below their artwork that had decorated her cubicle walls for the past seven years.

With a knot in my stomach, I expressed my appreciation for her amazing contributions to the success of our operation.  I peered through the blinds of my office, watching her load her box into the trunk of her car before she pulled out of the parking lot and drove away.

 

The Happy Interview Dance

happy dance

Today I am… Doing the happy interview dance!

My wonderful wife brought my lunch to work today, along with a letter that arrived in the mail this morning.  I immediately saw that it was from one of the many employers I had applied to, and my heart sank.  Of all the applications I have completed over the past month or so, this one took me the longest to complete and cost me the most money to send out.  My email has been full of dispiriting rejection letters lately, so it was with disgust that I folded up the envelope and stuck it in my pocket.

Let me tell you something about applying for management positions:  They want to see how well you write.  Or maybe they just want to see whether you can sling the bull.  Or perhaps it’s all just a big perseverance contest, which makes me feel like a trained dog.  Let’s see how many hoops we can get him to jump through!

Five, seven or even ten essay questions is not unusual for a management position application posted online.  I am expected to describe what I have accomplished in the past, what I am doing now and what I plan to do in the future.  I am expected to discuss how I will save the company money, how I will treat the employees and how I will improve public relations.  And somewhere around the fourth or fifth essay question, I will need to describe my management philosophy, my ideas for bringing peace to the Middle East, the last book I’ve read, my favorite teacher from elementary school and whether I’m a fan of Right Twix or Left Twix and why (in 600 words or less).

Take it from me:  Grappling with these weighty questions night after night and looking for just the right words to impress a prospective employer is enough to drive you bonkers.  My only saving grace is that I still have a job to go to in the morning.  For the next few weeks, anyway.  After that, I will have the unique pleasure of pursuing this sadistic hobby of mine all day, every day.

After a while, you start to dream about job applications.  While this may seem to indicate an unhealthy obsession, in your dreams you can sometimes come up with creative ideas for answering your next set of essay questions.

Rejection is a part of life, but trying to keep yourself employed by applying and applying may lead to a pile of rejection letters high enough to spur a less than sterling self-image.  It’s just plain depressing.

So as I unwrapped my fast food burrito at my desk, I pulled the envelope out of my pocket, unfolded it and tore it open with the intent of feeding the contents to the shredder.  After all, I knew what was coming.  Good news only comes via telephone.  What shows up in your mailbox usually contains the phrases “we had many qualified candidates” and “best of luck in your future endeavors.”

I nearly choked on my burrito when I read that I have been selected for an interview and that the human resources department looks forward to meeting me.  Someone loves me after all!  Sure, I am probably one of a dozen applicants selected for this honor, but at least they think enough of me to consider the possibility that I could be worthy of joining the team.

Once I have my interview, they may like me or they may not.  They may think I’m a good fit for the company, or perhaps not so much.  But at least they’re giving me a chance, a chance to put my best foot forward and maybe, just maybe, get that foot in the door.

 

To Be or Not to Be (Employed), That is the Question

retirement

It’s been almost three years since I’ve seen the snapper guy.

We were brand new in town and we couldn’t seem to figure out which end was up.  Just getting phone and internet service turned on was an ordeal.  We’d call one company and they’d send us to another that would send us back to the first.  Then there was the little matter of water.  When you move to the middle of the desert, you quickly discover that, well, there isn’t any.  Not the kind you can drink, anyway.  You have to have a tank installed in your home and find out how to get in touch with the water guy so he can drag a hose through your back door on a regular basis.  We called the number for the only water delivery company listed in the phone book and found that it had been disconnected.  And on and on.

Knowledge is power and it didn’t take us long to learn that the only way to gain local knowledge of who does what is to ask someone who might be inclined to share information.  Like Blanche Dubois, we had to depend on the kindness of strangers.  We finally hit pay dirt by asking the ladies who serve food at the local cafés.  Then I read the blog of a quirky local guy who, as it turned out, worked in the bank; we opened an account with him and got some more information.  Coming from a big city, the importance of knowing people in a small town was new to us.  Anytime a friendly person struck up a conversation, we’d take the time to talk.  After all, he or she could have a piece of critical information unavailable to mere mortals who have just moved to town.

On the day we met the snapper guy, we had headed out into the Sunday morning heat to go see the omelette guy.  Once we figured out where to dump our trash and how to get our lawn cut and our cars serviced, we had turned to the important matter of where to find the best meal in town.  The bank blogger guy had told us about the made-to-order omelette guy, so we headed out to brunch.  While we were standing around waiting for him to finish his sizzle and flip thing, my eyes met those of an older gentleman at a nearby table.  He motioned me over and we had a nice little chat.  After introducing myself as a newcomer, we quickly found common ground in our love of eating fresh fish.  I nodded and mmhmm’d and generally let him talk about the best kinds of fish and how to prepare them.  We agreed that our mutual favorite was red snapper, and he invited us to come visit sometime so that he could prepare a fantastic fish dinner for us.  I was amazed by his generosity and told him I’d really like that.  It was time to tip the omelette guy and go eat.

I ran into the snapper guy just once after that, and we merely waved at each other.  We never did go visit him, which I regret now that our time in the desert has come to a close.  I also realize that I should have visited our tiny local bookstore more than once or twice and that I should have supported our local library more and that, despite my dislike of outdoor pursuits, I should have gone down to the river a few times.

There is no sense in having regrets, however; when it’s time to move on, I just go.  Due to a complicated situation with my employer, about half the staff received layoff notices, including yours truly.  So, as the taxi driver said, where to?

In a few weeks, we will be moving in with family in northern California, more than 600 miles away.  Meanwhile, I have set my résumé adrift on the sea of bits and bytes that is the internet and, at the risk of mixing my metaphors, I sit with my iced tea behind the screen of my laptop and watch the letters and phrases and pages of my job history and references fly across the miles at the whim of the four winds.

What washes up on the beach has been interesting, to say the least.  Rather than smooth sea glass, starfish and clam shells, I seem to be harvesting proposals from every mass marketer, franchiser and get-rich-quick scheme our great nation has to offer.  Insurance companies want me to set up brokerages right in my hometown!  And I did receive a proposal from a recruiter at a very large tech firm about two thousand miles away, in the heart of the American Midwest.  If they want me to come for an interview, I told them, send me a plane ticket.

The most disconcerting aspects of my job search to date have been how few jobs are out there, how little they’re paying and the extent to which much of my previous work has been blitzed into obsolescence by modern technology.

Since I have to change jobs, I want to do something that’s a little more fun than being a boring manager.  My favorite jobs have always been those that feed into my predilection for being an adrenalin junkie.  I want to pick up the pace, work all night on a tight deadline and emerge bleary eyed at dawn as the courier rushes the completed work out the door.  I want to watch the automatic call distributor queue start to back up and then rush around moving people and pressing buttons while simultaneously pushing calls from one switch to another and calling in staff for overtime.  I loved working in the publishing and telecom industries, but alas, automation has zapped much of the zip and jolt out of what we once had to do manually.

And now, as I stare down the barrel of double nickels, the big five five, I wonder whether it’s time for this old dog to throw in the towel and, as my father likes to say, pass the torch from failing hands.  Anti-discrimination laws notwithstanding, who is going to hire an overeducated, over the hill, overeager middle manager?  We are a dime a dozen.  The young guy who cleans the bathrooms and vacuums the carpets in my building is more likely to get hired than I am.

The last time that I lost my job, I was unemployed for eight months and applied for 133 jobs in 27 states before I finally was hired.  I sigh at the thought of running this maze again.  Last time, when the plumber at our apartment complex came to fix our toilet, he asked me why I wasn’t at work.  Rather than expound upon the joys of unemployment, I simply told him that I had retired and was now a house husband.  I threw a dish towel over my arm and started a load of laundry to act the part.

It was an act last time, but now I wonder whether the time has come to do it for real.  I remember how my grandfather eased into retirement by going part-time first.  He had been with his employer for an insane number of years and finally stopped working at the age of 80.  When he did, he drew a pension and Social Security.  My parents retired much sooner, at about the age of sixty, also with pensions and Social Security.

But this is the 21st century, and there is no pension for me.  I have worked on both the east and west coasts of the United States for a variety of employers, never staying in one place for more than six to eight years, certainly not long enough to draw a pension.  This rolling stone has gathered no moss.  And I am not old enough to draw Social Security yet.  One could postulate that retiring earlier and earlier with each successive generation is a measure of progress.  But when retirement is not altogether voluntary, driven by a weak economy and galloping technology, one must question how much of a leap forward it really is.  This is particularly so when few arrangements have been made to support those who are pushed out of the workforce.  And there are too many of us sharing this misfortune to dump us on a nearby ice floe and cast us out to sea.

So what is one to do?  Well, there is the social safety net, such as it is.  There are unemployment benefits, but they will constitute only a small percentage of my wages and are generally cut off in a matter of months.  Then what?  They say the national rate of unemployment is starting to fall, but those figures are known to be biased by the fact that they fail to account for the growing ranks of the long-term unemployed who have exhausted all benefits and have simply stopped looking for work.  Meanwhile, my mother called this morning to tell me to apply for Food Stamps.  I told her that we’re not totally broke yet, but she retorted that some food aid is available to the unemployed even if their resources haven’t been totally depleted.  Yowza, imagine me at Wal-Mart with an EBT card.

It isn’t as if we haven’t planned.  But the savings we have will not last us forever and the 401(k) plan I’ve been contributing to for years will be taxed from here to Timbuktu because, in the eyes of the federal government, I’m still a spry young thing.  In reality, of course, I am neither spry nor young.  I wonder what to put down on the ubiquitous disability questionnaire that appears in the EEO section of every job application.  It’s bad enough that I have to admit to being a white male and hence bereft of attributes that could contribute positive mojo to an employer’s diversity statistics.  Should I take the opportunity to come across as a disabled applicant?  Will this help or hurt my chances of being hired?  When completing the inane application forms that most employers continue to use, do I really want to get into the details of my diabetes and hypertension problems?  Should I admit that I injured my hip in a car accident and some days I hobble around like a gremlin?  Should I mention my intimate familiarly with the painful cramps colloquially known as “the charley horse?”  I’m sorry, but I am not going to mention my disgusting gastrointestinal issues, nor will I discuss my sleep apnea and the Martian gear I wear at night so I won’t stop breathing and die in my sleep.  I grit my teeth and check no, not disabled, no reasonable accommodations needed.  And then I start to worry about what I’d do if they actually hired me, how I’d handle the walking involved, whether there’d be a handicapped parking spot on my side of the building, how much traveling they’d expect me to do.

I think of my nephew, age 22, not working.  I think of my niece, age 28, not working.  We have friends with adult children who sit at home, unemployed, living off of Mom’s generosity and begging for her debit card so they can go out for fast food.  So it’s not only those of us who have advanced to a certain age who find ourselves unwanted by the work world.  The younger set is having trouble grabbing a toehold in the workforce, as years slip by in which they amass neither savings nor equity in retirement programs.  And if the young and able-bodied can’t make it in this economy, then I don’t hold out much hope for us older blokes.

My wife and I sit across from each other in the living room in the evenings and talk about what comes next, choosing our words ever so carefully.  In a few weeks, we’ll be living with my mother-in-law.  Won’t it be nice to have our extended family within a few minutes’ drive instead of eleven hours away?  Yes, indeed.  (I try not to think too much about our loss of privacy, nor about the depression that inevitably settles over me like a heavy cloud once I’ve been out of work for a while.)  We’ll get to babysit my little grandniece while her mom is at community college during the day or working at Taco Bell in the evening.  We’ll get to help out with the church.  We’ll get some rest.  We’ll get to “regroup,” my wife says.  We’ll get to take a break.

The question is just how long that break will be.  Will I apply for hundreds of jobs for which I am really not qualified and do not particularly interest me anyway, begging pathetically like a cat scratching at the door?  Will I collect rejection emails for a year or more and then take a low-wage nothing of a job, working alongside high school students so that we can pay our car insurance?  Or will I, with time, settle into another mode of life, that of the funny old uncle with too much time on his hands, always available to babysit or drive someone to the grocery store?  Will I mellow out and be content with playing Scrabble online, tap-tapping away at my blog and occasionally making a halfhearted effort at applying for a job that I don’t really want and am not likely to get in any event?

We all like to feel that we have some measure of control over our lives.  So rather than slip into the silent masses of the long-term unemployed, perhaps it would be better to declare my independence from the work force right now and announce my retirement.

It’s either that or find a new career altogether.  I was thinking about that last night while we were having dinner in our favorite dive bar across the river in Arizona, just as Nickelback’s song “I Wanna Be a Rock Star” came on the jukebox.

I’ve got a decent singing voice and I suppose it’s not too late to learn to play the guitar.  Hey, you never know, right?

 

National Donut Day

donut

BUTTONWILLOW

So we end our day in Buttonwillow, a tiny crossroads off the interstate highway, about halfway between our home in the desert and our family in northern California. Six hours of driving down, six more hours to go in the morning.

This lengthy trip follows a full day of working. Not just any workday, mind you. National Donut Day.

You may think I am kidding, but I assure you I am not. I know this because Dunkin’ Donuts sent me an email reminding me.

Last night, I thought briefly about bringing in donuts to work for my staff.  To honor the day properly, you understand.  Ultimately, however, I decided against it. Along with four of my staff, I am participating in the company’s Biggest Loser weight loss challenge.  Now, is it just me, or would you agree that donuts do not quite fit in with this theme?

My hope was that no one at work would know that it was National Donut Day.

Well, fat chance of that! (Ooo, bad pun.). They knew alright.  And then they started whining about how they wanted donuts.  I reminded them about our weight loss challenge, but they remained undeterred.

Capitulating (caving in, like the sucker that I am), I headed to our little local donut shop.  I certainly wasn’t about to drive hours to Dunkin’ Donuts in Phoenix.

Arriving at the donut shop, I quickly learned that EVERYONE knew about National Donut Day.  Everyone except the owners, that is.  They had made no preparations and the place was just about cleaned out.

My conversation with one of the owners went something like this:

“I need a dozen.  Do you have any Boston creme?”

“No, sorry, all out.”

“Do you have any chocolate cake donuts?”

“Sorry, all out.”

“How about blueberry?”

“All out.”

“You don’t have much, do you?”

“A lot of people came in this morning. They bought two, three dozen donuts.  We didn’t know it’s National Donut Day.”

“Don’t you go on the Internet?”

(sheepish grin)  “Our son just told us.”

Well, isn’t that just ducky!  Now what am I supposed to tell my sugar-craving staff?  I looked around and decided to make the best of it.  What was left were maple bars, coconut donuts and plain glazed donuts.

The owners agreed to fill some of the maple bars for me, two with creme and three with jelly.  Then I added some of the coconut and glazed donuts to the box.

Feeling pretty pleased with the results under the circumstances, I asked to be rung up.  The total for 9 donuts?  Thirteen dollars!

I blanched.  I only had ten dollars in my wallet!  Sighing, I took out my credit card.

“Cash only!” yelled the owner, pointing to the sign I had overlooked.

The glazed and coconut donuts came out of the box. For ten dollars, I could get the filled maple bars, with some pieces of broken donuts thrown in as a measure of good will.

So there would only be five donuts (plus some broken pieces) for eight people.  Well, the maple bars were pretty big; maybe they would share.  Sorry, guys.

Well, share they did and it all worked out perfectly.  And I am happy to report that I did not touch a single donut. After all, I recently found out what donuts are fried in commercially.  You don’t want to know.

Thanks, Smart ‘n Final.  A little bit of knowledge goes a long way.  And maybe, thanks to you, I might actually lose some weight.

The Magnificent Seven

scale 1

So my employer has decided to up the ante on its wellness program by holding an eleven-week weight loss contest this summer.

Now, when I hear the term “weight loss,” I generally run the other way.  Well, maybe not run.  I am far too out of shape for that.  Turn my back and shamble away would be more like it.

I am what the doctors refer to as “morbidly obese,” as well as a couch potato and more than a bit of a food snob.  So a weight loss contest is way out of my league, to say the least.

I think about all the food programs my mother tried to put me on when I was growing up.  “I’m gonna put you on a starvation diet!” my mother would yell when we returned home from an appointment with the pediatrician, appalled and embarrassed at the numbers that appeared on the scale.  He had handed us a printed diet that included caloric values for foods with strange sounding names like kale and kohlrabi.  The sole item listed under “desserts” was 5-calorie gelatin.

I thought “diet” was merely a variant of the word “die” and that “exercise” was a dirtier word than the things my classmates scratched into the stall walls in the boys’ bathroom.  I wanted nothing to do with physical activity; I wanted to curl up in a corner with a book.  Nevertheless, I would be sent outside with a handball to bat against the garage doors.  Then there was the time with the punching bag and the time with the set of barbells and dumbells and the time my mother browbeat my father into hitting tennis balls with me.

My religious elementary school sent us out to play but really didn’t care whether I ran the baseball diamond or just sat under the apple tree.  Guess which one I did?  Junior high and high school phys ed was pure misery that I’d prefer not to relive by detailed description.  Being forced to assist my father with the yardwork was one of the low points of my life.  I got good at hiding and devised all types of devious methods of sneaking ice cream and cookies.  I blush to admit that at least one of those involved outright stealing.  Sigh.

Perhaps I can convey a bit of the idea of how prominent a role food played in my early life by pointing out that the gift I most begged my parents for at the age of six was a soda machine.

Considering the above, it should be no surprise to anyone that I’ve been massively overweight from toddlerhood until today, as I stand on the brink of senior citizenship.  Now, everyone knows how dangerous extra weight is to one’s health.  Obesity brings on a litany of diseases and drugs, most of which have come a-callin’ and then decided to take up residence like so many houseguests of questionable character who I cannot bear to throw out into the street despite the fact they have long since overstayed their welcomes.

Just take this weight-loss contest as an opportunity and a blessing, I tell myself, while in my heart I convinced that the whole thing is nothing more than an insufferable pain in the ass.

The Human Resources Department is calling the contest “The Biggest Loser,” named after the TV show.  Although we must have weekly weigh-ins like on the show (hopefully without the corny beep-beep-beep sound effects), I am happy to say that there are no five-mile jogs, treadmills or stationary bicycles involved.

Interested employees are to form teams of three to ten.  Success is judged not by the number of pounds lost, but by the percentage of body weight lost.  This means that I will need to lose somewhere between ten and twenty pounds for every pound that some of my already skinny coworkers lose.  Just when I curse the unfairness of it all, I am reminded that it will probably be more difficult for them to lose one pound than it will be for me to lose twenty.  Okay, point taken.

My employer has more than a dozen locations, so there are bound to be a lot of teams.  This means there will be a lot of competition.  I started asking around as to which of my nine team members wish to participate.  Seven of them said yes.  Seven!  Well, six plus me.  The rules say that now we have to come up with a team name.  I vote that we dub ourselves The Magnificent Seven.

I got the group together informally on Friday afternoon and promised them that I would not let them down.  I gave them the rah-rah talk about how we’re already good at teamwork and how this going to be a piece of cake.  Er, a celery stick and a carrot, I mean.  We might have to compete with ten or twenty other teams, but with a little determination, I think we have a very good shot at beating them all.

I still can’t believe I agreed to do this.  The easy way out would have been to just ignore this contest and smile weakly when I walk by coworkers’ desks and hear them regaling each other with stories of their successes.

There is something about being a supervisor, however.  You can’t just say “you do your thing, I’ll do mine.”  You have to be a leader, even (especially) when it’s not too convenient to do so.

And who knows?  Maybe this time I’ll finally keep the weight off and turn my life around.

 

The End of the Rainbow

rainbow

I am one of those softies who wears his heart on his sleeve and is a bigger pushover than the Pillsbury dough boy.  So, of course, I have a job in which I have to do things that make people cry.

Like, for instance, performance evaluations.  No one likes to be confronted by his or her shortcomings, and there is no better way to rub it in one’s face than putting it in black and white on official looking paper.

If that weren’t bad enough, I have had to “write people up” for petty peccadilloes such as failing to come to work, sleeping on the job and using words that will not be printed in a family newspaper.

And I didn’t just start doing this, dearies.  I’ve been pretending to be a supervisor for more years than I’d like to admit.  You’d think I’d have skin thicker than a bank vault by now.  But every time I think I have it all under control, one of my people goes out and does something like get cancer or retire.

Yesterday, my wife and I attended a retirement party for one of my people.  Not just anyone, but a really experienced person whose depth of knowledge cannot be replaced.  If that’s not enough, it was someone who is really good with customers, has a cheerful attitude and seldom complains about anything.  (Big sigh.)

I have to keep reminding myself that it’s not all about me.  After a lifetime of work, a person deserves a measure of freedom to travel, enjoy the grandkids, pursue hobbies and not be tied down by an eight plus hour daily commitment that, like any job, can suck the life right out of you some days.

It does seem like there should be some reward, if not a pot of gold, at the end of the rainbow.

A few others who have retired in the last three or four years showed up at the party.  They appeared happy with the free time that their new lives offered, and if there was any regret about having stepped away from the daily grind, I was unable to detect it.  Sure, they missed seeing some of their favorite people every day, but the trade-off seemed to balance.  There was much talk of breakfast clubs and lunch clubs and get-togethers.

We work for so many years of our lives that it becomes a constant that we tend to take for granted.  With so many people being out of work in the current difficult economy, this has begun to change somewhat.  Even for those who are out of work, however, there is always the hope of a job just over the horizon, that we will once again find our place in the nation’s economic engine.  “What do you do?” is one of the first questions asked when we meet someone at a cocktail party.  Too often, our employment transcends the nature of our job responsibilities and becomes our very identity. What we do becomes who we are. As the Bible says, “establish the work of our hands.”

All things, however, must come to an end one day.  Going back to the Bible again, I think of the verse from Ecclesiastes about “to everything there is a season and a time for every purpose under heaven.”  Made famous by one of my favorite sixties’ oldies, the Byrds’ “Turn Turn Turn.”

So, amidst the egg rolls, the potato salad and the cheesecake, I must come to terms with the fact that it is time to say goodbye.  Don’t be a stranger, come and visit us, and enjoy your new life.  After all, you’ve worked hard for it all these years, and you deserve it.

And who knows?  Someday, if I’m lucky, the party may be for me.