Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Breaking Loose (All Hell Variety)

It isn't often that reading the Wall Street Journal makes me anything other than annoyed, but yesterday's article on employers' nervousness over employees' high-tech gadgets left me feeling positively nostalgic.

On the one hand, I do have some sympathy for management. It must be hard to be a boss in the modern age.  All Mr. E. Scrooge had to do was to tell Bob Cratchit when to show up, then watch him constantly until he went home. I’m old enough to remember an era when showing up on Saturday in golf togs, or staying late and making sure everyone knew about it, was a mark of dedication and ambition. Now we’re working during kids’ soccer games and surfing for eBay deals during conference calls, so it’s harder for the Mr. Dithers sorts to torment the Bumsteads quite so easily. These days, you can only measure people on how effective they are, not how many countless hours they’re logging at their desks, and everyone who's ever known anyone in management understands that achieving results is not half as much fun as making someone suffer.

As a tail-end Baby Boomer, I’ve had the experience of being present at some pivotal moments in the business world when management lost control. It was always fun to watch. The first time happened at the sunset of  what I will refer to as the While You Were Out Age. Back then, I worked in a big company, doing something that resembled marketing, if you didn’t pay attention too closely. My missed phone calls were answered by my secretary, who wrote down the messages on pink “While You Were Out” slips. I would come back from vacation, a business trip or a long lunch, and close the door to my office, reading the slips and returning my phone calls. And if that sounds as antiquated as telling you that I retired to the drawing room to sort out my correspondence with a quill pen, I only just now realized it myself, so be gentle with someone of my advanced years, please.

Then voice mail was invented, and people recorded their messages directly – long, rambling, often incoherent messages, but still. I can remember feeling mighty important on business trips, sidling up to the bank of pay phones at the airport and entering the 800 number so I could check my messages along with all the other high-tech smarties.

While voice mail was instantly adopted by everyone from peons to middle managers, it was reviled by the executives at my company. In a scenario I would see played out again in just a decade or so, the executives hated hated hated voice mail. Now, at this same time, I was part of a Quality Committee at the company. We would gather periodically to talk about Deming and Kaizen, and how we could someday beat the Japanese by being focused on quality processes. Tom Peters was our rock star. We aspired to win a Baldrige Award. Don’t laugh; all the cool kids were doing it back then.

Once voice mail was installed at the company, our little Quality Circle meetings began to be crashed by the Vietnam Vet (and possible PTSD sufferer, I now suspect) who was our Head of Sales & Marketing. He would propel himself into our conference room, where we had plastered flow charts all over the walls, using that new invention, Post-It notes. “Do you want to improve quality?” he would ask (rhetorically; none of us ever tried to answer). “Then pull out that God Damned Voice Mail! I call people and I get a recorded message. Then I try to transfer and I get another message. I can’t even find a secretary!” By this point, he’d be red-faced and bellowing, we’d be cowering, and he’d storm out, off to change his shirt (rumor was he changed his shirts several times a day, a fact that fascinated me. I imagined armored trucks pulling up outside the executive tower every week, unloading bales of button-downs).

Even then, hampered as my cognitive powers were by my floppy tie, painfully large earrings and tightly hot-rollered head of giant, anchorwoman hair, I understood the man’s problem. He had lost control. Back in his glory days, he’d been able to call anyone, anywhere and Get a Person. He could shout at a secretary and say, “Find him!,” then put his feet back on the desk and imagine some frightened woman scurrying through the corridors, knocking on the men’s room door to tell some poor broom (our term for any lower-level employee) that HE was looking for him, now. It must have been a great life, but it was over. Now all he had was his supply of fresh shirts, and his temper.

My career spun on, or down, or perhaps in a bumblebee-ish spiral. I ended up at the rival firm to the first place, a company that prided itself on a Sensible Midwestern Work Ethic and a Flattened Hierarchy. Here’s what that meant:  no secretaries. Also, no offices and no doors. On the plus side, everything seemed a little calmer. No one was allowed to burst into meetings to scream at the quality geeks. And since everyone dressed in business casual, there was no need for a constant stream of dress shirts to be delivered to the executives.

It was fine, that life in the cubes, although when I called to talk to my friends at the old place, they accused me of working at QVC, because it was so noisy. Then we got computers, and then we got email. And once again, it was time for the bosses to lose it. They hated email because they were afraid we were using it for Personal Reasons. Someone at the company hired someone else whose job it was to read every single email (I’m assuming that at this point there were hundreds a day) and determine if it were of a business or personal nature. The juiciest personal ones were printed out, and the chief executive took to reading them aloud at weekly meetings.

I tried to think like the executive and understand the difference between emailing “Meet you at the bar at 6” to a friend and calling a friend (on your official company phone) for the same purpose. I suppose, in the boss’ view, he could always walk by and eavesdrop on your non-official communication. But, unless he kept that person reading all the emails his employees sent out, he had lost control.

And now all hell has broken loose again, and, according to my pals at WSJ, salespeople have Facebook pages just for their client base, managers are responding to complaints via Twitter and employees are answering company emails from their personal iPhones. IT Departments are having meetings and setting protocols and trying to stick their fingers in the dykes. Inevitably, people are crossing lines and being reprimanded for actions that, five years from now, will seem silly and outdated.

With a career that has taken me from an office, to a cube, to a spare bedroom with a laptop perched on a card table, and with a business wardrobe that has devolved from power suits to ratty pajamas, I can only shake my head and laugh. And, I suppose, feel just a little bit sorry for those beleaguered bosses.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

A white elephant and an 800-pound gorilla walk into a room ...

I love business jargon, really I do. I’m right there with the early adopters in asking people to thread the needle for me, or move the needle, or stick the damn needle in my arm and put me out of my misery. I have readily switched my focus from “big picture” to “30,000-foot view,” and then held on tight as I sat through meetings where the altitude was variously described as anywhere between 1,000 and 100,000 feet, and every level in between. Business-speak is a wild ride these days, and I often walk out of conference rooms wanting to lay a bouquet at the door, in memory of all the perfectly good language that was senselessly slaughtered in there.

I appreciate that most people in meetings aren’t listening to the speaker. But it often seems to me as if the speaker isn’t listening closely, either, based on how swiftly jargon gets mashed up and misused. As a master language mangler with whom I was once acquainted often said, “I’m just talking out loud here.” Many speakers are, and the result is that phrases which once contained at least a smidgen of descriptive usefulness have now become almost homeopathic in their dissolution.

My case in point refers to certain pachyderms taking up residence in certain domiciles. To wit: The Elephant in the Room. The phrase was hot in the 90s, when recoveryspeak took the country by Stuart-Smalley-esque storm. Suddenly all those Serenity Prayer plaques were overthrown in favor of such sparkling gems as “Denial is not just a river in Egypt.” And the Elephant in the Room, a phrase which refers to the large, uncomfortable truth that everyone would rather avoid confronting, sat down in the Barcalounger and became part of the everyday lexicon.

But then, like a crazed creature in Jurassic Park, the elephant began to turn sinister and stupid. I began to hear references to “the white elephant in the room,” as if a useless gift and a land mammal had mated to pose an even more menacing threat to the general welfare. Recently, the phrase has twisted to combine the world of recovery with the unlikely milieu of dumb jokes. An 800-pound gorilla (from the joke:  where does an 800-pound gorilla sit?  Anywhere he wants) has been grafted onto that poor ol’ big-eared elephant, and the resulting creature is squishing up the cushions on living room sofas all over America.

The new freak phrasing is accepted usage in many circles, including politics, where, it must be admitted, meaning often takes a back seat to volume. Mike Huckabee recently referred to Mitt Romney’s healthcare plan as "the 800-pound elephant in the room." And Huckabee used to weigh 800 pounds, so he should know. Even the artsy crowd has fallen prey to the blunder. A recent theater review of “Next Fall” in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune had the hoity-toitily named Graydon Royce declaring, “The 800-pound elephant in the room is the relationship between Luke and Adam.” That must look great on stage; I hope they use lots of dry ice.

It must be the complete lack of logic indicated by these new 800-pound elephant quips (note: a male African elephant weighs, on average, about 15,000 pounds) that makes my brain hurt so badly whenever I read them. It’s even worse to be held captive in a meeting where the gorillas and the elephants are roaming free, untethered by rational thought. The 100,000-foot view is bad enough, but this sort of language is too wild for words.

Saturday, April 9, 2011

Writing to Myself

I write things down, all day long. Let me clarify. When I say “write,” I don’t mean that I tap notes into my iPad or click away at my computer or endlessly text my bff. I mean that I write myself notes, with pen and paper, about what I must remember or what I wish would happen next or what I absolutely must do before 4 o’clock, no excuses. A Sharpie, the backside of a used envelope and a roll of transparent tape are all that stand between me and complete personal chaos.

If I have a conference call on a Wednesday afternoon, for example, the notes will start appearing 24 hours in advance.  “Call.” (bathroom mirror) “Call at 1:30.” (microwave) “Julie, don’t forget call.” (Pasted in the middle of my computer screen. And yes, I like to use my own name when I write to myself. It gets my attention.)

If an event of great import is looming, or if I’m extra worried I’ll drift into forgetfulness, I have a Code Red method – I pin the notes directly onto my clothes. Once, I was greeting the girls’ cello teacher on a Friday afternoon, asking if she’d like a cup of tea before the lesson started. “Well, will you still have time for your 2:30 conference call?” she asked. I thought she’d added psychic reading to her many musical talents until I looked down and saw a giant “CALL @ 2:30!” on my sweatshirt.

It runs in the family. My mother had a similar ability to get sidetracked cleaning out the spice jars when she had something more important to do. She told me a story about being home one day and opening the door to a meter reader, who kept darting furtive, repeated glances at her bosom. She began to suspect he was a crazed pervert in a stolen gas company uniform, and she locked the deadbolt when she sent him off to “read the meter” (i.e., find a new victim) in the backyard. Then she looked in the living room mirror and saw “CAKE TO EILEEN!” pinned to her chest. No wonder he seemed nervous. He must have wondered what the note on her underwear had to say.

I try to write notes to other members of my family, not just to myself, but readership remains low. “Change Sheets!” taped directly in the middle of the makeup mirror; “Cello First!” tacked across the computer screen – I might as well write these little annotations in Urdu for all the good they do me. In all my years on the parenting beat, I’ve found that the one sure way to get children’s attention about completing their household duties is -- to give up completely and do it myself. (What, you thought I had an actual solution? Have you seen my house?)

I don’t just write notes to myself so that I’ll remember appointments. After holiday hosting or other recurring events, I’ll pen a heartfelt missive about what to do differently next year, and paperclip it to next year’s calendar page. I have years' worth of notes about the annual Chocolate & Champagne holiday party, each, in increasing intensity, urging me to buy no more than four quarts of strawberries. In recent years, I’ve added dark exhortations like “I mean it.” I’ve underlined heavily. I’ve tried exclamation points. Yet still, by the time December rolls around each year, I ignore myself. I buy six quarts of astronomically priced strawberries and end up throwing the leftovers away (just about two quarts’ worth, I always notice idly as I head out to the compost bin). 

And then, yesterday, my strange habit came flying through the months to make me feel actual glee, an emotion with which I am generally unaccustomed. Easter is approaching, and I was unpacking the boxes of tree-hanging eggs and huntable eggs and other rabbit do-dads, when I came across an unopened box of Paas Easter Egg Dye. This note was taped to the front: Julie, you were so smart to buy this at a significantly reduced price after Easter 2010. Good work! Love, Julie.” 

Of course, I had no memory of buying the dye or writing the note. I can’t tell you what I ate for breakfast yesterday, honey. So this note had me completely gobsmacked. I live a life in which I try to do as much cheerleading as possible, and in which nothing I ever do is even remotely cheered. But I now had a workaround.  I told myself “good job,” and then waited for myself to stumble across the encouraging words. I wanted to reach out to that one-year-younger me and give her a big hug. So I hugged myself, instead, standing all alone in the  living room on a Friday night, feeling happy that someone had appreciated me, even if that someone was only myself.

But I’m still ignoring my advice about the strawberries. That’s just wrong.

Sunday, April 3, 2011

Always Go to the Funeral (with Bonus Fashion Tips)

Olivia thought that her purple nail polish might be too cheerful, and wondered if she had time to switch to a more mournful shade. Mary Katherine emerged from her bedroom in a black wrap dress and pumps she’d gotten at the secondhand store, accessorized with a black-veiled headband that gave her the air of a billionaire's widow at the reading of the will. “How do we look?” they wanted to know. “Like good friends,” I said, picking up my car keys and getting our show on the road.

Mary Katherine’s school pal had lost her grandfather over spring break. When Meg had called to cancel a sleepover and mall date they’d planned, and Mary told me the reason, I let her know that we’d be visiting the funeral home soon. When she wanted to know why, I intoned one of the cardinal rules I’ve picked up in the past few years: Always go to the funeral.  

Deirdre Sullivan’s essay for the This I Believe project, which I first heard on NPR in 2005, had a lasting impact on the way I try to live my life. In that essay, Sullivan said, “Sounds simple — when someone dies, get in your car and go to calling hours or the funeral. That, I can do. But I think a personal philosophy of going to funerals means more than that. ‘Always go to the funeral’ means that I have to do the right thing when I really, really don’t feel like it. I have to remind myself of it when I could make some small gesture, but I don’t really have to and I definitely don’t want to. I’m talking about those things that represent only inconvenience to me, but the world to the other guy. You know, the painfully under-attended birthday party. The hospital visit during happy hour. The Shiva call for one of my ex’s uncles. In my humdrum life, the daily battle hasn’t been good versus evil. It’s hardly so epic. Most days, my real battle is doing good versus doing nothing.”

Sullivan’s rhetoric gave me some needed backbone, and I urged the girls forward as if it would be impossible for us not to go. So, on a Thursday afternoon during spring break, we were rustling around in the back of our closets, looking for our best black clothes. The girls were worried about the dress code, as if there would be a Funeral Bouncer who would inspect them for non-black items and toss them out onto 50th street. I felt myself treading carefully around this topic, aiming to instill an understanding of Dressing Appropriately while not being one of those people who believe that a proper wardrobe is the one sure sign of moral superiority. I have, in my life, observed incredible kindness by people who got all their fashion advice from Jaclyn Smith at Wal-Mart, and unrelenting, lockjaw cruelty by the twinset and pearls crowd. But still, this was a funeral, and I owed them some advice.

I tried this:  “Here’s the thing -- I saw someone at Olivia’s grandmother’s visitation wearing shorts and garden clogs, girls, so don’t get too worried about this. I guess my advice is – if you have something nice and dark to wear, that’s great, but we shouldn’t let our clothes keep us from going, and we really shouldn’t judge what other people are wearing. Some of the nastiest people I’ve ever known have the most correct wardrobes, and that garden clog guy probably really loved O’s grandma. You never know.”

That seemed to mollify them, and we headed out. Once in the car, their fashion decisions now irrevocable, the girls began to worry about the next part of this adventure in grief and consolation. Always looking for her lines, Mary asked, “What do we say?” Always seeking to maintain some semblance of control, Olivia asked, “What exactly will happen and when?” I threw suggestions over my shoulder and into the backseat, the way I had been doing for years. Keeping my eyes on the road meant that I never saw the eyerolls or sad shrugs that accompanied my words, which was probably best. “Keep it simple,” I said. "Try something like -- 'I’m sorry about your grandpa; how are you doing?'"

Once there, we wandered past the curated Life Show that has now become the modern funeral – easeled collages of photos, memorabilia laid out on a table, big-screen tv with continuous loop PowerPoint. The girls found Meg and said the right words, which were graciously received. Meg suggested that she introduce them to all her cousins, and they headed off. I talked to Meg’s parents until the girls showed up. Her dad, who had just lost his father after a long illness, received huge bonus points from Mary Katherine when he praised her veiled headband. “Perfect for a funeral,” he told her appreciatively. “I know, right?” she squealed with tweeny abandon, forgetting about the reason for the getup and just savoring the accessory perfection.

I had promised “20 minutes max,” so we made our way to the door. Mary, whose vision has recently been sharpened by a surge of estrogen, had only one thought when we left the funeral home:  “That place was full of cute boys!” she squealed. She seems to see them everywhere these days, like Ray Milland and the DT bats in Lost Weekend. Meg’s cousins, it turns out, had included a hefty proportion of cute boys, cleaned up for the occasion. In Mary’s mind, funerals now ranked with the mall for CBAs (Cute Boy Alerts).

We headed into Uptown, the girls rearranging their ensembles with other accessories they’d brought along. Mary Katherine’s Grieving Heiress turned into Desperately Seeking Susan around Lake Calhoun, and Olivia’s Somber Friend became Urban Hipster in the Calhoun Square parking lot.

Later that night, I bought them grilled cheese and burgers at the Uptown Cafeteria, and they split a malt. Their tiny bit of duty now completed, they giggled over their cotton candy and compared notes on the cousins. I thought about all the meals I’d shared with these two, and all the laughs we’d had together.  I hoped they’d have a friendship that would last for years. Perhaps someday they’d be together at my funeral. With any luck, they’d tell stories and share laughs at my champagne-soaked wake afterward, attended by the 20-year-old pool boy with whom my body had been found.

“Let’s toast,” I said, before we left, raising my mug of coffee to their chocolate malt glasses. “To good friends.”

Here’s Deirdre Sullivan's 2005 essay: Always Go to the Funeral