Sunday, August 26, 2012

They Were Right When They Left Here: Modern Trends in Business Obfuscation

He never wore socks, his collar was always popped, and he smelled so strongly of Polo cologne that you could walk into a conference room at noon and know that he’d been there in a meeting at nine a.m. In short, J. was the perfect end-of-last-century preppie. He was also a complete idiot and a moral infant, prone to massive mistakes and profligate finger-pointing. Nothing, ever, was J’s fault.

Which leads to his greatest attempt at Teflon-ing ever, one that became the stuff of legend in the company where we both worked. After a long series of bumbled reports, he had promised the client that the next set would, finally, be correct. He sent  hard copies via Fed Ex to the customer’s office in Detroit. (Because, back then, they only thing anyone had were hard copies. They hadn’t invented softness yet, that’s how tough we were.) The next morning, he received an irate call, informing him that the reports were, for the millionth time, wrong. 

“Well,” said J. stoutly, “They were right when they left here.”

And with that brilliantly stupid remark, he earned First Place in my Business Obfuscation Hall of Fame. I doubt that anyone will ever break his record, though, because our new age has provided too many ways to uncover the truth. The Puritans only had the dunking stool to help them find out the truth about witches, but just ask Bill Clinton or Anthony Weiner about the perils of attempting old-fashioned lying in a high-tech age. Back in the day, you could claim that the check had been put in the mail, or that your secretary had never given you the message. Saldy, those options are gone, and no one even knows what a secretary was.

Recently, though, I’ve discovered a new attempt by the inept to pass the buck for their own incompetence – the Spam folder. Several times in the past couple months, I’ve experienced someone excusing their inaction on an important matter by insisting, “I never saw your message; it must have gone to my Spam folder.” 

It’s a pretty nifty little conceit, replacing the incompetent secretary with a miscreant Outlook folder, but it really lacks the panache that accompanied the idea of a missing pink “While You Were Out” slip. Still, it’s the best that our times have to offer for getting oneself off the hook, which is almost enough to make me look back fondly at the time when everyone had an office, and a secretary, many of whom were smoking at their desks.  Aaah, take in a deep breath, kiddies, and let your lungs fill up with a time when the men were men and the excuses were plentiful.

I have to admit that I grew soupily nostalgic in remembering J. and his back-in-the-day exploits. Thanks to LinkedIn, I was able to do a bit of sleuthing, and I’ve uncovered the following tidbit: According to his bio, he’s a “Business Development Professional Seeking New Job Opportunity.” Oh, J. You had a job when you left here, didn’t you?

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Still Life with Mother

Of course the best thing about being a writer is being able to work while wearing pajamas. But, in additional to sartorial freedom, I’d always had a vision of the writing life that included a loyal dog, curled at my feet, waiting patiently while I tapped out my latest assignment.

I’ve had a number of dogs over the years. Their degree of loyalty has varied, but they were consistent in their refusal to do the feet-curling thing. The best I’ve ever been able to achieve is a vague lingering in a nearby hallway, but barking at passersby out the side window has always proved a more enjoyable way to pass the daylight hours for my ill-bred canines.

I have to admit that the dogs are not to blame. The problem is me. I had to laugh when I read a recent report that sitting still for too long at work will kill you. If that’s the case, I’ll live forever, because I’m continually hopping up from my desk for a pointless household errand or unnecessary cleaning chore. No wonder the dogs don’t stay nearby. They’re in constant danger of being run over by my desk chair, as I suddenly remember that I need to switch the laundry to the dryer, turn off the tomato hose, or take cookies out the oven. On especially boring conference calls, I put on a headset and prowl my kids’ bedrooms, dusting furniture and tidying drawers.

I just don’t sit still for very long, which is bad during corporate meetings, but great for my longevity, I guess. Still, it makes me a less-than-ideal pet owner, and I suspect it makes me a difficult mother, too. I’m sure my children remember me as little more than a blur, one who promised to sit down for a nice long game of Barbies and who always sprang up to start a batch of brownies, instead.

The one time I slow down is at night, when I quickly decelerate to sloth-like levels. Talk to me at night (if I’m still awake), and I won’t seem like the same person who gyrated from room to room that morning. I have a tendency to head for bed around sunset, which is swell in July and becomes a bit problematic in December.

My children, God bless them, seem to have adjusted. And this week, as the weather cooled and the skies grew dark at  8 p.m., I found an unexpected side benefit to my sudden need to lie flat when the stars came out.

Each of my girls managed to find me, stretched out upstairs with a book. And they began to talk. Mary showed up on Sunday,  the night before she left for camp, and shared a week’s worth of dreams and worries about being a high school freshman in the fall. Emma presented herself a couple nights later, and told me more about her nine months in China than I think I had heard since she arrived home in June. She came back the next night for more of the same.

It makes, sense, of course. When fall evenings come, they finally know where they can find me. I’m not searching for my car keys because I’m late for yoga, I’m not racing off to see a friend who needs help of one kind or another and I’m not spazzing out the door for another volunteer gig.

I’m here. I’m quiet. Because I’m moments from unconsciousness, I’m probably much better at listening. I lack the energy to talk too much, ask too many questions, or offer unwelcome motherly opinions. I am, short of the moment I slip into a coma, about as receptive and available a mother as I will ever be.

And when I wake in the morning, usually at the absurdly early hour that comes to those who turn out the light at ten, the first thing I think of is the last thing I saw the night before – the sweet and shining face of one of my girls, as she opened her heart to a mother who was practicing stillness, in all its glory.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Hey Ladies, Look at My Spinach

Mademoiselle MacGill was not a master teacher (they didn’t have such swanky designations in my weary, failing high school), but I’ve just discovered that the lessons she taught back in Ritenour High School certainly seem to have stuck.

In the creepy old attic that is my brain, high school French was buried under several layers of dusty show tunes, to-do lists and towering stacks of worry. Yet, when our exchange student, Hugo, arrived from Paris on Friday night, the old French reappeared – a bit worse for wear, but still vaguely useful.

It appears that, between watching countless episodes of “Love, American Style,” I seem to have spent the majority of my study time on French nouns, because they are the only parts of speech I recall with any accuracy. Poor Hugo looks more alarmed than reassured when I blurt out a word that’s just come to me, delivered in a rusty accent that’s been made even less comprehensible by that Minnesota lilt I’ve picked up over the years. But hey, we talked about the “bateau” that would be at the cabin, and I made repeated references to Betty the “chat,” feeling mighty worldly as I did.

As we groped for ways to amuse this sweet, jet-lagged and obviously gobsmacked kid, we took Hugo to the farmer’s market. He wants to be a chef, and I thought that food might be a universal language, which it pretty much proved to be. But how in the world did I remember that an eggplant was an “aubergine?” That, I’m afraid, is a mystery for the ages, but of course the credit goes to Mademoiselle MacGill.

By the end of our visit to the market, I’d even found that I remembered two entire sentences related to food: Allons, mesdames, voyez mes epinards ("Hey ladies, look at my spinach," from the “At the Market” chapter in our textbook) and Vous n'êtes pas un homme, vous et en champignon ("You aren’t a man, you’re a mushroom," from Le Petit Prince by Antoine De Saint-Exupery.)

If my French was awful, it turned out to be significantly better than my mime skills, which I starting putting to use whenever one of those dusty nouns could not be pulled into service.  On Saturday afternoon, we had our usual family emergency, the sort that’s delivered fresh and hot several times daily in these parts, and I had to mime my way out of it. 

Mary Katherine bolted into the garden, where I was supposed to be weeding and where, in fact, I was doing what they used to call “woolgathering,” intoxicated by the crisp weather and the scent of the basil plants.  “Dad is missing,” she announced dramatically, “and we have to leave for the theater RIGHT NOW.” We tried a few vigorous shouts, but he seemed to be hiding, abducted, or lying in an exhausted heap somewhere. Then someone noticed that the dog’s leash, and – here’s where the real detective work comes into play – the dog itself, was missing, and a theory was formed as to the parental unit's current whereabouts.

Mary Katherine could not wait, so I pulled off my gardening gloves and prepared to drive to a location near the giant Jesus Wall off 35W, one of my favorite locations in the city, because I get to say “Jesus Wall” when I go there. She told me that she’d bought a ticket to the play for Hugo, too, so I tried to tell him that he was leaving, like NOW, as she was putting it. Too lazy to look in the French-English dictionary we’d been using, I decided to act out what was going to happen next. “You are leaving with me,” I said, with lots of mutual chest-pointing.

“You will go to a plaaaaaayyyy,” I added, very slowly and loudly, which is the surefire American treatment for communicating with foreign-like-talkers of all stripes. I added what seemed like a true touch of genius at this point, and enacted what I thought was a perfect approximation of a person taking a seat in the theater (I was doing so well, I thought, that Hugo could probably tell that the seats were red velvet), and then I tried a sweeping hand gesture to indicate my joy at the show that was unfolding before me.

Hugo, who is nothing if not incredibly polite, nodded in what might have passed for comprehension and headed off to get his sweater. It was only when I got to the car and started to tell Mary Katherine of my great breakthrough in Franco-American communication, that I began to see my recent performance in a new light. Viewed another way, by, say, a sane person, my indication of taking a plush red theater seat might have looked vaguely intestinal, and my sweeping indication of the action on stage might have looked like something requiring Windex. I began to feel that perhaps Hugo had gotten the idea that I was telling him I urgently needed to wash windows, while sitting on the toilet. 

I began to laugh, very hard, at my own stupidity, which is such a wonderfully freeing activity that I do it several times a day. Mary Katherine became suspicious, asking, “WHAT did you say to him?”

“Oh honey,” I said, as I wiped my eyes, “at least I didn’t ask him to look at my spinach.” 

Sunday, August 5, 2012

Please Don't Be Weird

The helpful usher at the children's theater was standing beside a big orange bucket, which I assumed was there to hold her torn ticket stubs. But after I'd asked for directions to the bathroom and we'd started walking away, Maren offered up a side-of-the-mouth, Groucho-esque aside:  "Whew. I thought she was going to tell us we had to pee in one of those buckets."

And I was off. I leaned against the wall and laughed. I hooted. I howled.  I told her, appreciatively, "You are so funny!" and she beamed with the pleasure of making a grown-up act like a moron, right out in the open.  Basking in the glow of her pride, it took me a moment to realize that one emotion was missing from my emotional soup-of-the-day right now:  shame. 

I am the mother of teenagers. For the past several years, any outward display of emotion on my part, any words delivered at a louder-than-average pitch, and especially -- most dreaded -- my hearty laughter, are  greeted with icy disdain. I've grown to fear what's becoming the constant refrain of my old age:  "Mom, you're embarrassing me!"

I can even point to the moment when it started.  That December, Emma was nine, Mary Katherine was six, and we were at the downtown Dayton's department store, on our annual Santa-and-show trek.  The Muzak was letting loose with a rendition of The Dance of the Snowflakes from The Nutcracker. Looking at the trees and the overpriced Christmas ornaments, I decided to try a bit of a humalong, accompanied by a clumsy pirouette. In years past, this would have been an invitation for the kids to join in, and we would have made like a trio of prima ballerinas in the department store aisles. This year, I felt a tug at my sleeve and heard a hissed "Pleeeeeese."

Emma pleaded, clearly mortified:  "You're acting weird."  Just as I was thinking, well, that's the whole point of the thing, isn't it, her younger, better self took over, and she decided to set her request to the music of the dance. She sang (quietly): "Please Don't Be Weird, Be Weird, Be Weird ... Pleeeeeuhz Don't Be Weird."

We all laughed. But I didn't take up dancing in public again, at least not unless I felt it was absolutely necessary. And the Please Don't Be Weird song became a staple part of my daughters' Mom-control strategy.

Which is why I take my friend Maren (age six) to the children's shows instead of my judgmental girls (ages 17 and 14). And, along with a host of reasons, it's why I'm still volunteering at the Crisis Nursery, all these years later. Let's face it, I need the audience.

Last week they sent me to the baby room for my shift, and I had four tykes under a year old in my charge. Here's one of my ugly secrets:  I think babies are boring. But still, it's my job, and I take it seriously -- or goofily, as the situation requires.

On this shift, the staff member had to run to the laundry, leaving me alone, so I propped my four charges against bits of wall and furniture, and, for a brief moment, they were all happily drooling and shaking rattles. Then I found that great rarity at the Nursery, a toy with working batteries. Even nicer, it played something a bit upmarket from the usual baby swill -- classical music hits in 30-second digitized formats, including (hurrrah! a favorite) The Toreador Song.

I took a break from nose wiping to deliver my best flamenco dance for the kiddies, along with a few improvised lyrics along the lines of  "I Am A Baby, I Am Really Swell."  The babies looked up, temporarily intrigued (with babies, everything is temporary). With that, the door opened, and an especially humorless staffer looked in to to find me, arms raised, lacking only a rose between my teeth, as I executed an especially snappy set of kicks.

"You okay there, Miss Julie?" she asked skeptically. (They prefer this form of address at the Nursery, so I continually feel as if I'm trapped in a bad Tennessee Williams play.) I lowered my hands.  I held up a pink rattle and shook it half-heartedly in the babies' general direction. "I'm fine," I mumbled. As least she wasn't singing the Please Don't Be Weird song to me.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Give Me Your Shoes

“I have to be there [quick look at clock] five minutes ago. Take them off, now.” When your 17-year-old warrior-to-be is pointing at your flip-flops with this level of intensity, there’s only one thing to do. Take off the shoes. She slips them on and runs out the door. (Oh, no need to close it, honey, I think it’s much better to blast air conditioning into the backyard; it keeps the squirrels calm.) She squeals out the driveway. As the car vanishes, it's time to ask, as it often is with Emma:  what just happened? 
As best as I can piece it together from the soon-to-be-issued Coroner’s Report, Summer Happened. Here in the dog days of the official When Does School Start? season, I have found myself living with a couple of teenagers for whom the term “of the moment” seems a little too well-thought-out. Planning ahead? Devoting a brain cell or two to the concept of what might be needed for the journey that lies ahead? That’s not the way we roll. It’s so much more fun to race back to the house after a dashing departure, panting, flapping and screaming out a litany of lost objects in tones of rising pitch:  Phone! iPod! Money! Shoes! Cranium!
Gosh, it’s all so … hmmm, I think “impromptu” might be a good way to put it, don’t you think?  At least, that’s what I’ll call it after I pop another Xanax and have a moment to lie down.
It wasn’t always like this around here, I’ll have you know. I used to start the dinnertime drill every night promptly at 6 p.m., thus allowing for two hours of full-bore mommying and four more hours of Fielding Complaints, before defeat was declared and sleep won out. This household was a haven of order and ritual and a big old boatload of beginning-with-the-end-in-mind, none of which seems to have made the slightest impression on either of them.
Exhibit A is the Car Meal, a recent trend that gives me the whim-wams, but who’s asking what I think. The Car Meal is a result of the inability to count backward in any credible way. Let’s say, for example, that you are a peppy little ingénue who is currently in rehearsal each night from 6 – 10 p.m.  Your ride usually arrives at 5:30 p.m. When, then, should you enter the kitchen, with a plan toward preparing an evening repast that will sustain you until you return home at 11 p.m.?  If you said “4:30” or “5:00,” take a look in the mirror right now. You Are Old. Not Good for your Age or Well-Preserved, just Old. Here’s why -- the correct time to start thinking about dinner, when you have a 5:30 p.m. ride coming, is 5:25 p.m., and not a minute sooner. 
Here’s the procedure. Swan into the kitchen and look around, beseechingly, at all the appliances, as if a fully cooked meal might be popping out of one of them at any moment. Sigh and say, “I guess I ought to have some dinner,” pausing for a long, sad look at mom. Watch her spring into action. Think to yourself that there’s a little pep in the old girl yet.

Four minutes later, leave the house with your Car Meal in tow, and make sure it’s a good one. Fiala girls do not go for foldover bologna sandwiches or spotty bananas. Insist on nothing less than a freshly baked ciabatta with thin-sliced turkey, or perhaps a perfectly warm bowl of pasta with homemade pesto.  What about a hot-off-the-griddle batch of potstickers, along with a container of dumpling sauce?
I watch more cutlery and pottery head out my door each day than a Steak ‘n Shake car hop.  It’s only a matter of time before they begin demanding white tablecloth service, all delivered on a little lap tray. “And mom?  Those votive candles were getting a little dim last time, so try to use fresh ones tonight.”
I’m not quite sure how this happened, how I ended up with children so behind-schedule and lacking in vitality that the thought of running upstairs to get one’s own shoes is purely unthinkable. But here I am, barefoot, just counting the days until the first day of school.