Saturday, February 23, 2013

The "Two" Candle Looks Back, and a Little Bit Forward

I first posted this blog three years ago, right in the heart of our annual birthday whirlwind. I looked it up again this morning, and considered its implications with a new sense that this Mom thing is truly a short-term gig, no matter how it may seem otherwise some days.  (Initially posted Wednesday, March 3, 2010)

Since I never throw anything away (there is a container in my laundry room to save drier lint for compost, and that I think that pretty much says it all), of course I save all birthday candles, decorative or numeric. Last week, I had occasion to consider that little recycling policy, and how it might play out in the future.

The candle in question was the “two.” I first used it for a quick light-up-and-blow-out the year Emma turned two, the year she was crazy about Barney (although she now denies it, but I have photographic evidence). Then it made an appearance when Mary Katherine turned two, which was, I think, the year when everyone in the house suddenly realized that she had won us over with her “Go Mary” sweetness. The person we’d all seen as an intrusion had suddenly become indispensible.

I lit the “two” as a part of a double-digit pair when Emma turned 12 and declared herself a “Two Teen.” And just last week it was dug from the bottom of a bag for Mary’s 12th birthday, an occasion marked by a gaggle-of-girls salon visit. It was a glamorous day that featured plenty of sparquins. (Mary’s new favorite word, recently coined.).

Every feast, at least in our family, requires the significant labor of a pre- and post-party House Elf. Everyone loves to put up the balloons, but only I seem to be around when they have to come down, as they did this past Monday. As I was collecting and storing all the feast decor (how many “Happy Birthday” banners does one family need?), I picked up the four-times-lit “two” candle and thought about the next time that I’d use it. It would be, I realized with my mighty slow English-major powers of numeric observation, when Emma was turning 20. And then I realized that, mid-February in 2015, she’d be away at college, and not celebrating in this house at all. No impossible cake demands (“Checkerboard, but in my school colors. And sprinkles, but can you pick out all the pink ones?”) No custom word search puzzles, made by me. No thousands of pictures plastered all over by the trudging House Elf. It would be a birthday with a gift mailed a week before, a phone call and a posting to her Facebook wall.

Well. The two candle and I sat down for a moment while I thought that over. I had used the candle for toddlers who were driving me crazy. I had used it for tweens who were driving me crazy. And the next time that “two” came back into service, I would be done with all that, the day-to-dayness that is so much a part of my mothering, and onto another phase of my life, and theirs.

Not exactly hit with a ton of bricks, I felt more like I was receiving a friendly nudge of melted wax and frosting, telling me that yes, it’s difficult to be the constantly toiling Birthday House Elf, especially with their birthdays a day apart (poor planning, I know, talk to the Chinese government and my uterus). But in five years, I’ll be down one kid, helping the second one to plan her escape, and what will be left will be a bag of half-burned number candles. Perhaps I'll start holding little birthday ceremonies for whatever dog is still alive then, or, more pathetically, a cat.

Happy Birthday, Fluffy. Here’s a “two” candle stuck in your bowl of Friskies, and may you have many more to come.

Saturday, February 16, 2013

You’re Never Dead on LinkedIn

I had a hard week. I say this knowing that, of the seven billion people on the planet, at least a billion had a harder time of it than I did – disappointing Valentine’s Days, worrying prognoses, chunks of meteorites falling on their heads, and much, much worse. Still, it just seemed like a little bit too much when I checked my LinkedIn updates yesterday morning and saw this message.

Congratulate my friend on his work anniversary? I would love to, LinkedIn, but he died four months ago, so if you have any tips for me, I’d appreciate them: “Six Ways to Contact Your Dead Friend and Get Qualified Leads!” There’s a blog post for you, another perfect topic from the parade of geeks, hacks and combed-over salesmen who clog up your system with a daily firehose of business-dreck.

The first shocking thing about that update was that Joel is dead. I guess I keep thinking that he just had a temporary setback with that cardiac arrest in Boise, and will somehow find a way to pop back into my life. The second shocking thing, and it was a very close second, was that he started working at Maritz 27 years ago, which means that I did, too, and that hardly seems possible. Death and time and my advanced age all joined forces for this Friday morning face-slap, and I hadn’t even finished my first cup of coffee. Like I said, I had a hard week.

I rarely dream, but I dreamed about Joel this week, a couple days before the LinkedIn situation. In my dream, the two of us were sitting in an office, talking. I understood, dream-logic style, that we had snuck away from whatever work we were supposed to be doing and were indulging in some office gossip.

In my dream, Joel, who had been short of stature in life, was very tall. I wondered if he’d gotten to select a new height in the afterlife as some reward for past good deeds. Another thing I remember was that the office furniture and lighting were really very shabby. I suppose it would serve us both right, to be serving out some purgatory sentence in a Steelcase-knockoff cube farm. In the dream, a man opened the door to the office and interrupted us. Some angel, I guess, putting us on double secret probation for goofing around on company time.

When I think about it (or “reflect,” in the new business parlance), it makes perfect sense that there’s work in my version of heaven. In the way that I’ve had dogs who were tennis-ball-motivated and who were kibble-motivated, I’ve always been work-motivated, since I got my first gig at the St. Louis County Library when I was 16 years old.

It’s fine if there’s an office to which I must report for all eternity. But the more I think about that dream, the more I hope that the afterlife has a park, too. Just one would be fine, as long as it’s something spectacular like Bryant Park, in midtown Manhattan. The last day I spent with Joel, last June, we walked over to that park with a friend of his, and sat at one of the little metal tables, gabbing idly about the theater, until it was time to go pick Mary Katherine up from her acting class and go to that night’s play. It was a good day.

It’s not LinkedIn’s fault that I found myself devolving on Friday morning, jolted from the deadline I was avoiding to a reverie about sitting with a friend in the city, feeling warm and safe. Maybe yesterday was just another day that I was supposed to remember him, and the pixels aligned themselves to make me do it.

No, I don’t blame LinkedIn. But still, it was a hard week, and still, I miss my friend.

Saturday, February 9, 2013

Management by Sign

The staffer was sitting directly underneath an oversize laminated sign. It depicted a cell phone being slashed by the international “no” symbol. The sign was topped by an enormous headline that read: “No Cell Phones!!!!!!!!” The woman, oblivious, was texting at a rapid clip, ignoring me, her job, and, it goes without saying, the sign. I thought about whipping out my cell phone and taking a picture of this tableaux, but decided that the irony would probably be lost on her management.

It was just another day of volunteering at the nonprofit-that-will-not-be-named, a place where new signs are posted almost as quickly as they are ignored. Each time I arrive for a shift, I find new evidence of an about-to-be-scoffed-at rule, usually created in 72-point Comic font, with enough exclamation points to sink a battleship, if punctuation could do that sort of thing.

I’m sorry to report that it appears someone recently donated a laminating machine, which must have thrilled management, because I’ve noticed that signage production has taken a sharp uptick. I always imagine the Executive Director of this institution creating annual performance management goals that read something like: “Increase funding, serve more clients … and create 30% more signs.”

Here is Kendrick’s Corollary of Organizational Development and Business Success: there is an inverse relationship between management effectiveness and the number of nagging signs posted in a workplace. In other words – the more signs, the worse the environment. The notes about the mandated level at which the thermostat must be set? The clever “Your Mother Doesn’t Work Here” signs in the breakroom, posted over the sink? These are, I believe, clear evidence of a sinking organizational ship.

This fall, I found myself out of town on a Sunday morning, and ended up at a yoga studio that had the benefit of being close enough to my hotel that I could drive there without getting lost. From the moment I walked in the door, I could tell I was in trouble. There was a “welcome” sign in the entryway, instructing me about the correct method of lining my shoes up by the door. The scowling man behind the desk, who identified himself as the owner, led me to a cubby area that contained several more sets of detailed instructions. Notices about the proper way to reroll yoga mats were posted by the props. I went to the bathroom and found a Sunday New York Times’ worth of reading material – all posted on the wall, all telling me the proper way to flush, wash my hands and throw away paper towels.

It was a crummy yoga class, of course. The instructor – that scowling guy behind the desk – began by looking out the window to see if anyone else was coming, and then haranguing the room at large about the paltry number of yogis who were present, what was the matter with people, was the sunshine keeping them away or what.  And so on.

I’m here now, I thought, as I often tell myself at the beginning of class. And I couldn’t help but add, silently, “And you, pal – you’re already in bankruptcy court.”

And yet, for all my wry observations of panicked signmaking in others, I often resort to it myself, at home. I find it has the same sort of effectiveness level as it does in most offices. In other words, I might as well write my pleas in a Bosnian dialect for all the attention that is ever paid to them. But still, I persist. 

Here's a recent, pathetic example. When the washing machine developed a convulsive disorder and began to have frequent seizures, I would often enter the laundry room to find an entire bottle of Tide tipped over on the floor, oozing everywhere. I told everyone in the house about this development, and instructed them to stop putting detergent on top of the machine. More spills. I brought it up again.  My children had the usual lost expressions reserved for occasions of pseudo-attention-paying, and I imagined them thinking:

Did you hear a sound like a woman’s voice? 
 It almost sounds like Mom, 
but I can’t make out what she’s saying. 
Something about Thrills? Chills? Skills? 

Finally, I wrote a frantic sign in my craziest-old-lady handwriting and duct-taped it to the machine: “Jesus Will Weep If You Put A Bottle Here.” I got a laugh, but I still got spilled Tide. And yet, I still keep at it:
  • Please empty this dishwasher! 
  • Who does this damn thing belong to and why has it been sitting on the kitchen counter for three days?
  • Really, did your IQ dip when your hormones surged? Put your shoes away, for the Love of God.
The signs have no effect at all. No one pays the slightest bit of attention to me. But, Sharpie in hand, I still keep doing the same thing and expecting different results – the chief characteristic of insane people, and bad managers, the world over.

There’s only one solution, the way I see it –I’m going to ask for a laminating machine for Mother’s Day.