Thursday, February 12, 2015

You can come out Denny, it's gone now

When I recently read that Coca-Cola was disconnecting voice mail at its Atlanta headquarters, the first person I thought of was Denny O. Back when I was just a rising young marketing geek with hot-rollered hair and too-big earrings, he had been a Big Deal at the agency where I worked, and he hated voice mail with a pure and holy passion, mostly because he  preferred screaming at people face-to-face, and not via sissified recordings. Poor, Denny: he's long gone now and not here to see the demise of his nemesis. I dug up this nostalgic look back at the floppy-tie and flow-charts era in his honor.


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 kill 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.

Monday, February 9, 2015

On your feet all day

There was a clear hierarchy of jobs in my mother’s view of the world, and it started at the bottom: If you were stupid and lazy, you would be relegated to a life of “digging ditches,” or, more peculiarly, you’d be “nothing but a hod carrier.” I was always a little hazy on the nature of hods, but clear on the contempt with which she held their transporters.

Just a rung above those jobs, in my mother’s mind, was any occupation in which “you were on your feet all day.” That view is certainly ironic these days, given the health horrors now associated with a life spent sitting down. (“Enjoying your comfy couch? You’re about to DROP DEAD!”) But Katherine Kendrick was a woman of firm opinions, and she never wavered in her belief that an eight-hour shift spent on one’s feet was a miserable fate.

I have never before considered why those circumstances would be such an object of dread for her. That’s because, I now realize, I’ve never thought about the particulars of my mother’s feet before. This, however, seems to be the year in which I begin to reflect on her life, and mine, from the ground up. Genetics have caught up with me, and the poor quality of my flat and misshapen Irish feet has suddenly become a top-of-mind — or is that bottom-of-foot? — issue in my life. This is the year I’ve developed a close relationship with my podiatrist, have learned how to swallow handfuls of aspirin  without water, and have begun to place significant value on the joy to be found in owning several pairs of comfortable shoes.

An ad for the Chase, circa 1968. Check out those room rates.

 In the 1960s, my mother asked her girlfriends to teach her how to drive, and then she took a job as what was called a “hat check girl” at the one posh hotel in St. Louis — the Chase-Park Plaza. The job opened up her life in many ways — she made friends with staff who were, in the parlance of the time, colored, and she became chummy with actual foreigners. She was great chums with several  Greek waiters, all of whom who slept eight to a room and rotated spots on the three or four cots they had in their sparse apartments near the hotel. She made friends with gay men, who gave her great advice on how she dressed and carried herself. She checked coats for Frank Sinatra (“he looked scared”), Danny Thomas (“biggest cigar I’ve ever seen”), and for all the players in the St. Louis Cardinals (Red Schoendist was her favorite because he was a big tipper). Her friend Libby got to meet Gregory Peck, long considered the biggest “get” among the group of middle-aged “girls.”

The job may have been great for expanding her world view, but it played hell on her feet. Every night, she wore a nice dress, a girdle, and a pair of incredibly pointy-toed high heels. The floor in the hat check room was concrete. She was in her mid-forties. Why did I never put these facts together and think about how much her feet hurt? One summer, our family was even more strapped for cash than usual, and she took a second job, working during the day as a hostess at a tony restaurant. I remember her talking about the restaurant's terrazzo floors as if they were land mines. Now I understand why.

When she and I traveled together, or when she came to visit me, I remember seeing lots of foot-related doo-dads — corn plasters and foot tape and bunion pads. Toward the end of her life, she had a hammer toe so severe that the toe had to be amputated. I was concerned for her, but still unaware of how it might feel for her to take a step, and seemingly unable to imagine it. I am sorry to report that I can remember telling her to hurry up, or to walk faster. “Stop being such an old lady,” I would tell her. She would laugh, and try to speed up. Oh mom.

Yesterday, in the shoe department of the Land’s End inlet store, it all came crashing in on me. I was browsing through the winter shoes, looking for some safe choices among all the things that hadn’t sold, and when I sat down to try a pair, I hesitated. I didn’t want to take my current shoes off, because that would hurt. I didn’t want to put the new pair on, which I was already eyeing with the suspicion that they’d inflict a new level of discomfort in some sore place I didn't know about yet. And then I remembered shopping for shoes with my mom, how sometimes just looking at a pair of shoes would make her wince.

Of course, I thought, sitting there immobile in the brightly lit store, staring across at a rack of potentially uncomfortable footwear. Now I have my mother’s feet. Now I understand what it felt like for her to stand up, and work, and walk. And now it’s too late for me to tell her. I miss her for many reasons, and I’m sure that sharing stories of foot pain would not the first thing I’d want to do if I ever get the chance. Mostly, I’m just thinking about my understanding, and how dim it was before, and how clear it is now. I hope, I really hope, that she’s finally had a chance to put her feet up somewhere comfortable.