Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Blog Therapy

A friend of mine (Marcus) graciously re-posted a story of his, one called The Book Collector.

It is a tale haunted by regret; one which resonates with the consequences of the road not taken. It is the story of choosing safe and sensible over passion and dreams. It is a story which demands to be read.

And I have—many times. The narrative is Luke’s, and I identify with him completely.

When I was young-enough to be making such decisions, I wanted to write. Photograph. Paint. Make music. In my eyes, the traditional work world was a place steeped in the stench of slow, insidious death.

If you’ve ever seen Brazil or Joe vs. the Volcano, their office scenes captured what that world looked like to me. A place where people turned grey and lifeless. A place where unthinking regimentation and soul-sucking conformity gnawed away at you every single day.

But like Luke, I was afraid. Afraid to take a chance. And I have come to understand that was the biggest risk of all.

My father was a free-lance writer. Despite his being a fairly-talented one, he struggled to support a family of six. He supplemented his job as the managing editor of a quarterly publication by selling the odd article to whatever publication was interested. It was, in its way, a grueling life.

True, my father didn’t have to fight rush hour every day or wage combat with the office sociopath. But out of necessity he sequestered himself in the bedroom and banged away at his typewriter from eight in the morning until nine or ten at night. It was a ceaseless grind of research, queries, deadlines and rejections.

Despite my love of words and pictures and music, I knew I didn’t want to work twelve or thirteen hours a day sans benefits and with only an uncertain reward to show for it. There was also this nagging question as to whether I even possessed the talent. I wanted stability and security.

All these years later, that reads like a sick joke. There is no stability. There is no security. And there is certainly no fulfillment.

I lost a publishing job because, in the words of my boss, a financial wizard in New York City figured trimming payroll was the fastest way to boost stock values, and in turn, excite shareholders.

I lost a job in telecommunications when a union-hating gentleman by the name of Joe Nacchio engineered the ouster of my co-workers and I by reconfiguring our jobs so that it was virtually impossible to meet its sales goals.

Then there was Kathy Lovett. She was a company director so disliked by her peers and subordinates that she sat alone at the office Christmas dinner until there—literally—wasn’t another seat in the room.

This same woman made it agenda item number-one to rid the company of me, and succeeded.

The only clue I have for her intense dislike was that I negotiated my wage with her. And judging by her reaction, you would have thought it was coming out of her check.

It wasn’t.

You are familiar with my latest tale of woe.

Life sucks. Or more specifically, work sucks. Contrary to what we say at meetings and performance reviews and in the hallways, very few of us love it. I take that word to mean we’d do it for nothing, but I don’t know anyone who would.

I failed to locate that elusive place where ability and interest intersect. We make our own beds and then must lie in them.

That being the case, I hear Motel 6 is looking for maids. I’m experienced.

Sunday, October 25, 2009

I'm Employed! Wait! I'm Not!

I’m pretty sure that I’m becoming insufferable.

You see, this is my therapy. And I really, really need therapy. So if you feel an eyeroll coming on and need to click that white ‘X’ in the upper right-hand corner of your screen, I'll understand. No offense taken.

This has been a brutal year. A brutal, unforgiving year. I find myself wondering what it is I did. Did I swindle money from helpless and lonely old ladies? Did I rape? Murder? Vote Republican?

I ask these questions because life is beginning to feel like punishment.

Let me explain.

Last week, I found work. My relief was immeasurable. The compensation sucked, as did the hours. But it was a job. A paycheck. Something to plug the nasty employment gap on my resume.

I was ready to sing. Let God on high be praised!

But like all things 2009, it was too good to be true.

I submitted applications to two stores in a Texas-based chain specializing in used books, music and movies. After a year of joblessness, I was asked to interview at both locations. I don’t think the savviest bookie in Las Vegas could have calculated the odds.

It was off the charts. It seemed like a perfect fit, and I was thrilled.

OK. So what’s the problem? you ask.

I accepted an offer for temporary employment because it was the first one offered. (Yes, I'm that desperate.) Then a second offer followed. It was for permanent employment. Caving-in to my selfish desire to remain clothed, housed and fed for as long a period as possible, I then accepted the permanent offer.

Since all my fine china and stemware is in storage, I never entertained the idea that both interviews would yield job offers. Not me. Not in 2009. But they did.

In my view, this was an entirely understandable and acceptable decision. Especially in the revolving door that is retail. But retail isn't retail at Half-Price Books. This was an act of romantic betrayal tantamount to treason. One which demanded only the swiftest and most-severe punishment.

I first detected the foul odor of payback when the start date for the permanent position was postponed.

The next day I received a phone call from a district manager. He berated me for “exhibiting poor judgment”, explaining how I had maliciously played one store against another by interviewing with the second store while in the employ of the first. How I had deviously concealed from the manager at the first store where I was headed.

Firing squad being presumably unavailable, the offer for permanent employment was withdrawn.

As I had yet to even set foot in the first store when I interviewed with the second, I’m confused how I was in its employ. And while under the influence of ignorance, I also don’t understand if I never mentioned store A to store B and vice versa, exactly how did I pit one store against another?

In my admittedly limited experience, the sort of manipulation I was accused of required the disclosure that a second party was involved, which indicated increased demand for a particular commodity, which in turn enhanced one’s bargaining position.

But what do I know? I just write here.

The unemployed are told to remain positive in the face of evidence to the contrary. We are told to look forward, not back. And above all, we are told not to take unemployment and rejection personally. It’s just business.

Yet when the delicate sensibilities of a store manager are offended by an employee choosing a permanent position over a temporary one, it’s not just business. It’s personal, and someone must be made to pay.

Is Rambo available?

It doesn’t matter that the manager had a two-inch stack of applicants from which to choose a replacement. It doesn’t matter that the employee actually showed up for his final shift and even offered to work the following day if it would help minimize subsequent schedule changes.

It also doesn’t matter that the employee expressed genuine remorse for the short notice and explained in detail that his financial situation didn’t allow any other choice.

What matters is that a manager who was angry with herself because she awarded the permanent slots to a couple of dolts while she tossed the temporary slot to the keeper won’t have to bear the humiliation of seeing that employee work for a competing store.

What matters is that her shaky self-esteem has been soothed. What matters is that her out-sized ego has been stroked. That’s right—you’re still in control. If you can’t have him, no one will!

Her ruffled feathers have been smoothed.

Yes, I’m guilty of interviewing at two stores and choosing the best deal. But I’m fairly sure that’s what we do every day at the grocery store. Or the mall. And I’m fairly sure it’s what business does when it shops for a supplier.

It’s even what business does when it (ahem) shops for a prospective employee. It’s—dare I say—just business.

But don’t you try it.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

La Piazza Gancio's Guide to Unemployment

The Emotions

At first, unemployment feels like some much-needed time-off from the stress and numbing routine of the workplace. No alarm clock. No rush hour. No performance reviews. It’s actually quite pleasant. Liberating, even.

But beware—this first phase is usually short-lived. Depending on your financial situation, it may not even be lived at all.

Accompanying the realization that it’s taking just two or three minutes to peruse the job listings is a vague unease. This soon turns to mild panic as the resumes and applications you submit are met with a stony, impenetrable silence.

Extended periods of silence intensify and heighten the panic.

The good news is that this eventually congeals into a thick, lard-like resignation, unless preceded by internal organ failure.

The Application

Beyond the buoyant joy one receives from listing name, address, education and work history over and over and over again are the unusual questions you encounter on the job application.

Answering these questions soon becomes an exercise in the opening of Pandora’s Box as your inner cynic soon supplies surly and unprofessional responses to even the most benign questions.

For example, an innocent query such as What’s your biggest weakness? will provoke the sarcasm of “Differentiating late-period Etruscan pottery from early-Hellenic pottery is sometimes an issue for me.”

Another potential land mine is Why do you want to work for the _______________ company? Care must be taken to avoid being “smart”.

Who among us hasn’t wanted to respond that “It is my considered opinion that employment with the ______________ company is preferable to a painful, lingering death by starvation, exposure or some combination of both.”

Now who, exactly, has this helped? That’s right—no one.

The Career Counselor

At least that’s what the counselor at the job center tells you when you arrive with just a couple hundred dollars in your bank account and half a tub of very yellow margarine in the fridge.

Being gainfully employed, the counselor has no idea of the deep well of resentment that lurks within you, or of the eye-rolling disgust you feel when you’re told “the most-important thing is to stay positive.”

It briefly lifts their spirits when you remark that “I’m positive I feel like a bird when I’m job-hunting, because nearly all of the available jobs are beneath me.”

But when your thinly-veiled insouciance becomes apparent, their face hardens like plaster of Paris.

“You shouldn’t take this personally. This isn’t anything against you.”

You try telling your landlord the same thing when the rent is late, but for reasons that remain unclear to you, he doesn't see it that way.

Which is the funny thing about unemployment. It is an ironic state-of-being fraught with contradictions. While no one is legally obligated to hire you, you remain liable to your creditors.

Unemployment requires a kind of magic. Alchemy. Even without rain, you must keep the cash stream flowing. Or, depending on one’s landlord, utility, department of motor vehicles and telecommunications provider, even increase its flow.

And while you shouldn’t take impending bankruptcy, homelessness and starvation personally, business will consign your credit rating (and you) to sub-prime hell if you can’t pay a thirty-dollar phone bill.

It’s only fair.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Banned Books Week

Acting on a suggestion from her friend Melissa, Laura recently celebrated Banned Books Week by reading one and posting a review.

I, too, wanted to participate, but being in the middle of a book and being a molasses-in-January kind of reader, saw there was no way I’d finish my current read and complete another by week’s end.

So I've done the next best thing. (Those of you who know me well will likely roll their eyes.) I have an album of an Allen Ginsberg poetry reading, which includes the famous ‘Howl’.

So in honor of Banned Books Week, I have listened to a record. Admittedly a bit off the mark, but under the circumstances the best I could do.

A bit of backstory: Allen Ginsberg was one of the leading lights of beat poetry. In mid-fifties San Francisco, Ginsberg, along with Jack Kerouac and Lawrence Ferlinghetti, railed against the social strictures of the day, fueled by be-bop jazz, illegal sex and narcotics.

This literary rebellion contributed directly to the civil rights rebellion of the early-sixties, and the anti-war protests of the late-sixties. It is no stretch to say that the beat poets lit the fuse that exploded “Leave It to Beaver”-land.

Among the frank sexual imagery, ‘Howl’ is the song of the ostracized, looking up the skirt of staid, conservative and capitalist nineteen-fifties America. Half a century later, it’s easy to forget that copies were impounded as obscene, and that publisher Ferlinghetti was arrested for the distribution of obscenity.

It took a court to decide that the publication and distribution of ‘Howl’ wouldn’t destroy the moral fiber of America.  

That would require a cabal of our captains of industry and elected representation.