Sunday, November 26, 2006

Charlotte Bronte on work

". . . am I to spend all the best part of my life in this wretched bondage forcibly suppressing my rage at the idleness the apathy the hyperbolical and most asinine stupidity of those flat-headed oafs and on compulsion assuming an air of kindness patience and assiduity?"

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Planning ahead for Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day

In 1993, the Ms. Foundation came up with Take Our Daughters to Work Day. The
idea, as explained to me, was to give girls greater exposure to career
opportunities and to boost their self-esteem. The premise was that girls
tended to receive less attention than their male siblings.

I remember the first several years of TODTWD. My firm brought in clowns,
face painters, local celebrities, even zoo docents (me) with animals. There
were coloring contests and other planned activities, and it was the one day
when Mom would forego her calorie consciousness and take the children to
McDonald's for hamburgers. None of the parents got much work done, and the
childless among us (me again) braced for six hours of constant noise,
interruptions, and childish chatter. I recall the daughter of one of our
attorneys making colored mark all over paper; I told her, "Wow, that's
exactly what your mom does all day."

In short, the girls, many eight years or under, must have come away with the
idea that "work" means face painting and other kinds of fun.

By 2003, the original purpose of TODTWD had become lost or irrelevant, and
our sons were now included. With the passage of time at my new employer, I
noticed that this even twas become less and less structured, until even the
coloring contests were no more, or at least were not promoted. The children
come in and meet other children, chase each other around, play on the
computers, and color on their own. This year, a coworker's nephew made us
personalized door hangers.

In other words, the children still don't really understand what their
parents do, other than sit at desks, working with phones and computers.

I've gotten the impression that this how the day goes at other corporate
offices, that it's increasingly downplayed, and that it seldom lives up to
its purpose. I also can't imagine that this event is widely implemented in
non-offices or in more hazardous white- or blue-collar settings. Do
night-shift emergency room nurses bring their children to work? Nuclear
power plant workers? Sawmill workers? Stevedores? Airport security
personnel?

I suspect that TODASTWD boils down to a day spent in an office rather than
at school, a feel-good opportunity for office workers to show off their
children to their coworkers and their offices to their children. Some
parents may explain to the older children what they do, but for the most
part the children seem to play and socialize until they get bored.

If the Ms. Foundation wants to make the day educational and meaningful for
the daughters and sons, I have some ideas for structured activities. The day
itself is the last Thursday in April, so now is not too early to begin
planning.

* Invite the children to a two-hour department meeting where many
carbohydrates and fats are served and where, after much wrangling and
tension, nothing is decided.

* Have the children join their parent for a weekly project status update
with the boss so they can witness the humiliating consequences of not being
able to read a superior's mind.

* As a extra activity, have the children jot down every time the superior
interrupts Mom or Dad to read personal e-mail and take personal phone calls.

* Have Mom or Dad submit a small project that day so the superior can
demonstrated the fine art of criticizing work that he or she cannot do.

* Make sure the children participate in an informal gripe session among two
or more lower-level employees. Point out to them the furtive glances and the
lowered voices, especially when Self-Important Leaders pass by. As a bonus,
have the Leader stop and address someone in the group and have the children
watch the attitude change instantly from sullen to solicitous.

* Do not offer them a lunch break. If the children are to experience
corporate office life, they will need to get used to doing without food and
breaks and to working through the day until at least 7:00 or 7:30 p.m.

* Be honest with them Tell them that what they have experienced is what Mom
or Dad faces every day until retirement or until those lottery numbers
finally come through.

It seems to me that TODASTWD is the perfect opportunity to prepare the next
generation for corporate slavery. It would give all those daughters and sons
who are short on self-esteem and starving for positive attention something
to look forward to.

Monday, November 20, 2006

Review: Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony

Roanoke: Solving the Mystery of the Lost Colony by Lee Miller. Not recommended.

Armed with a master's degree in anthropology from Johns Hopkins University, Lee Miller tries to combine history with the arts of the novelist and dramatist. Not successfully, as she might say in one of her numerous misplaced sentence fragments.

As the subtitle implies, Roanoke focuses less on the mystery of the lost colonists than on Miller's convoluted approach to solving it. She takes the reader on so many voyages, to so many places with so many peoples, and through so many plots and treacheries, none in chronological order, so that within just a few pages that reader feels as lost as the colonists themselves.

Miller tries to use the techniques of the novelist and dramatist to heighten the effect, including a breathless tense that implies the present: "In one of the last glimpses we have of them, it [what?] has already begun: colonist George Howe has been found dead, floating face down among the reeds along the shore." This, along with the use of the present tense elsewhere, makes this event sound ominous indeed, until later it is revealed who killed him, how, and why. While this information boded ill for the colony, it was not mysterious in the way Lee hints. Howe's death plays a small role in the Miller's solution of the "crime," but it is for the most part a minor red herring.

The author plays up innumerable events and questions as though the revelation of identities and machinations will be shocking to the reader, much in the manner of the present-day tabloid. One of these questions is, "Who are the Mandoag?" This point, raised continually as other nations refer to them ambiguously, mysteriously, and with fear, seemingly becomes the crux of the mystery and the fate of the colonists. After such a buildup, the unveiling has no dramatic impact and little interest. Even worse, Miller's case for their identity is speculative, weak, and inconclusive.

This describes much of Miller's approach. She frequently comes to conclusions through process of elimination and then finds supporting evidence. Once she has determined the religious affiliation of the colonists, then their actions, and the mother country's lack of interest in them, make sense. Such an argument is weak and easily undercut. Miller does so herself when she says that England had become so overpopulated that she didn't want any colonists back, whatever their affiliation may have been.

Miller's speculations do not always seem logical. She writes, "And why would they [the colonists] assume that a strange fruit, growing in an unfamiliar land, is fit to eat? In fact, we would expect them to err on the side of caution." On the contrary, I might expect people who have been at sea for months, living on dry rations, to be so hungry for fresh fruits of the earth that caution might not occur to them in the excitement of the moment, that they might eat any fruit that appeared fleshy and edible. Miller does not speculate as to what the fruit might have been, but concludes that the colonists must have been told by a treacherous individual that it was safe to eat. I would question why an individual would take the risk of betraying such a large number of people in whose company he is stuck and why they would not punish him. The answer could be that they were utterly dependent on his him to get them to Roanoke and/or Chesapeake Bay. Still, the question of this particular betrayal is not as clear as Miller portrays; this is typical of her thought process throughout.

Her writing style and habit of jumping around erratically in time and space is frustrating and tiresome for a reader who is not familiar with the facts of the Roanoke voyages. She tries to use sentence fragments for dramatic effect, but has no idea how to do so. Most of these fall flat. For example, "White pushes ahead, the sailors following. Out of their element."  Since this fragment is not followed up with something that happens because White and the sailors are "out of their element," it is pointless and adds nothing. Numerous fragments like these are distracting and detract from the narrative. A good writer knows to use such a device sparingly, but Miller indulges in it relentlessly.

By the end of the book, I knew a little more about Elizabethan England, John White, Sir Walter Raleigh, and the nations of the Roanoke area than I did before, although I have qualms about the reliability of Miller's interpretations of her sources. Her ultimate conclusion about the fate of the colonists seems little different from that of other historians, although she probably presents the case differently. I recommend reading a more straightforward history of Roanoke colony before tackling this book and being prepared for more drama, badly done, than history.

Monday, 20 November 2006.
© 2006 by Diane L. Schirf.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

Two dreams

I've never read The Interpretation of Dreams, or any of Freud's
writings, so I don't know what the father of dream analysis says about
dreams. I wonder how individual dreams are. Do some people dream very
literally, while others dream in symbols and metaphors? If so, are those
whose dreams are literal also those whose thoughts are literal? How do you
recognize what is literal and what is symbolic?

In some cases, it's very obvious. In my morning dreams, no matter how
surreal they are, invariably I will look for a bathroom. Each time I find
one it is configured oddly, or is nonfunctional or dirty in some way. This
morning it was full of what appeared to be repairmen and other males. At
some point, though, no matter what the obstacle, I go in and take care of
the need. This means that I wake up, find my glasses in the dark, and
scramble to my functional, prosaic (but never quite clean) bathroom. With
two fibroids the size of a fist and numerous others crowding my uterus, plus
the problems caused by PMS and attendant hormones, I have to go when I have
to go, sometimes sooner . . .

(This is one of the reasons I want to be a man in my next life. An
extroverted man.)

But the prelude to the bathroom fantasy is usually not so mundane. I've
dreamed of people transformed into frosted cakes, of houses with their
facades in the city and their rears in the country, of houses with
watercourses inside, of roads that take me places that I knew once but that
are infinitely strange to me now, of pans and vampires, of makeup that
betrays hidden feelings and anguish, of an incubus whose attack made me wake
up breathless with terror an hour after going to sleep, of apocalyptic night
skies, of many things that are weird and marvelous. My dreams are better
than any work of fiction could be. Often they leave me with such a wonderful
feeling of strangeness, of being outside the world, that I don't want them
to end (and I do recognize that the intrusion of thoughts about bathrooms is
a sign that the end is coming). Sometimes I sleep at odd hours, perchance to
dream.

Today I had a new dream and one whose gist is recurring more and more
frequently. In the new dream, which I had in the afternoon, I had a caged
dog whose face was expressive of his emotions, which seemed sad and
hopeless. Enter the cat, against whom the cage was probably meant to protect
the dog. Still, the cat managed to attack the dog brutally, which made him
even sadder and more withdrawn.

I don't remember speaking or doing anything, but the cat somehow became
contrite, perhaps because I willed it, and soon he and the dog were snuggled
together, the best of friends. The dog had lost its infinitely sad look and
now seemed blissfully happy. I felt pleased and envious.

In my morning dream, with the recurring theme, I was at a gathering of
people from high school, apparently two or three years after graduation,
while we were still in college. As usual, I was trying to get someone to
notice me, to acknowledge my existence. As usual, it was as though I were in
an alternative universe, where no one could see me. I would even talk to
people, but they looked past me as though I weren't there&lsqauo;or weren't worth
noticing. One woman spoke to me, although perhaps she was addressing someone
else. I leant so close to her because of my poor hearing (of which I was
conscious even in my sleep) that our relationship could have been
misconstrued. I do not think she saw me any more than anyone else did. I
could see her, and the object of my desired friendship, but I could not be
seen. I was not real to the real world.

Frustrated, yet desperate to continue trying, I repaired to the bathroom
full of repairmen, where the stalls were wavy suites and there was nowhere
to go . . .

Saturday, November 18, 2006

An army of one

If you don't follow the news, whether online, or on television or radio, and if you don't have a family member, friend, or coworker serving in the military, would you know that the U.S. is at war?

This isn't a pointless or trite question, but one about how we the public have come detached from a world that is increasingly sanitized for us, a world in which we are observers rather than participants, a world that we hope will somehow, someday set itself right—when someone, we don't know who, when, or where, invents miraculous technologies that will allow growing populations with heightened quality-of-life expectations and demands to live on dwindling space, animal, plant, and even element resources, such as topsoil and water.

If you don't know anyone serving in the military, how otherwise does the war in Iraq or the action in Afghanistan affect your day-to-day life? Except for some economic fluctuations that could be due to many factors, it probably doesn't.

Now think about World War II, a war fought before everyone had televisions, radios, and personal computers. Yet you could not fail to think about it. People across the country gave up commodities like stockings so the materials could be used for the war cause. Companies like Kraft Foods advertised that their prepared dinners utilized fewer ration points. Women became "Rosie the Riveter," filling the growing number of industrial positions left vacant by able-bodied men sent to the front. Military recruitment posters caricatured the enemy and Hollywood cranked out war and propaganda movies and shows, while Bob Hope and friends entertained the troops. Every radio program referred to the war, whether it was Jack Benny asking you to buy war bonds or "Fibber McGee" reminding you about ration points. The president spoke regularly to the public about the war.

In short, your everyday life, from the food you ate and the work you did to the entertainment you enjoyed, was affected by events thousands of miles away in the European and Pacific Theaters. Everyone was in it together.

Not so today. Most of us go about our business, eating what we also do, going to our jobs, and renting Pirates of the Caribbean as though there weren't a war going on, as though we didn't have troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, fighting to hold both countries together and fighting for personal survival.

What you might notice is a greater amount of military recruitment advertising on cable channels geared toward young men. In between the commercials for fast food, games, and technical schools are those about the "Army of One." The messages are different for different audiences. In one, an older man talks to a young soldier about the need for trust and to be able to rely on one another, appealing to young men who want responsibility and camaraderie. For those who desire excitement, another commercial shows a young recruit on leave, at home with his civilian buddies. When he tells them he works with computers, they look at one another incredulously and point out to him that he could have done that here. "Not really," he says, as he is shown in the think of adrenaline-pumping action. One focuses on life after the military. A former soldier is introduced to the team at his new employer as someone who learned something about aviation and mechanics at his "last job." Yet another appeals to patriotism; a soldier is shown jogging past the people and property and neighborhood he is defending and is joined by other fresh-faced soldiers who run with him (the only commercial in which female soldiers make a token appearance).

The Navy simply plays coy. Water is shown lapping a beach in the dark for some seconds, then the Navy Seals Web site appears on the screen.

War and terrorism are strangely absent from each of these commercials. During World War II, we were called upon to fight sneering Nazis and sinister Japanese; during the Vietnam conflict, we were called upon to fight the Viet Cong and communism. Today we are not called upon to fight at all. We are called upon to experience trust and camaraderie, excitement, on-the-job training, and pride.

But we are not fighting anyone, whether you call them the Taliban, insurgents, or terrorists. We are not rationing or sacrificing food, raw materials, or food. What we are doing is eating, working, shopping, partying, etc., as though there weren't a war, or as though it is so removed from our reality that it doesn't affect us or our lives. That seems to be what we want, and what our leaders want.

I am not so sure I feel comfortable feeling so comfortable. At some point in a not-very-distant future, all of us will have to start sacrificing some of that comfort, including those who have had it for a while, those who are just getting used to having it, and those to whom it is being marketed. The planet can't sustain it, nor can our combined propensity for procreation, consumption, and conflict.

Your cave or mine?

Wednesday, November 8, 2006

Vote early and often. Or not at all.

Vote early and often.

You've heard this time-honored [tired] saying about Chicago elections, which supposedly even reanimate the deceased.

In my case, it was, "Vote not at all."

What happened to me on Election Day, November 7, is probably not that unusual, although the judges told me I was the only one all day, as of 6:30 p.m. That's me—always different.

The way in which it happened was funnier than most of what you'll see on a comedy show.

After work I duly reported to my polling place, where the Democratic judge could not find me in the book.

In other words, this was my first step on the road to finding out that I am a non-person.

Befuddled, the judge referred me to the Republican judges, apparently in the hopes they have better eyesight. They could not find me in the book or on their list.

"Have you moved?" they asked. "Yes, in 2003, but I voted in 2004." After some back-and-forth during which they told me that perhaps I voted before but it may not have been counted, they referred me to a Person of Greater Authority (PGA) to give me a provisional ballot.

The PGA called "Election Central," which pulled a Peter the Disciple and denied all knowledge of me. "Sorry," she said. "When was the last time you voted?" "2004." "Two years ago? That's the problem." "But I've been voting for more than 20 years and never had this problem before." "Did you vote in the primary?" "No." "Aha," she said knowingly. "But I've never had this problem before!" By now I was getting emotional, as it was clear that as long as "Election Central" didn't know me, I was going nowhere near a voting machine.

"Why would they arbitrarily delete me?" I wailed. Then, realizing it was best to leave before embarrassing myself even more, I said, "I"m not upset with you," but halfway through my apology the PGA turned her back on me to ask someone who didn't need help if they needed help. Next!

At home, a little calmer, I called the Illinois board of elections complaint number. The person who answered listened to my tale of woe sympathetically, but said only the Chicago board of elections could help me. He did point out that not having voted since 2004 had nothing to do with it and that I shouldn't have been told that it did. Apparently the PGA was incorrect, at least about that.

Now, this is when it gets good. I called the Chicago board of elections and, upon request, gave my address: 5500 South Shore Drive. After several minutes of muttering, she told me that address didn't come up. I repeated it, as I would approximately 50 times in the next 10 minutes. "5500 South South Shore Drive, right?" she asked. "No, 5500 South Shore Drive." "Okay, 5500 South South Shore Drive." "No, it's 5500 South Shore Drive." "That's what I said, 5500 South South Shore Drive." "5500 SOUTH SHORE DRIVE." (When you're not being heard, it helps to raise your voice to complement the increase in your blood pressure.)

"You mean, there's no directional?" "Yes, it's south. 5500 SOUTH Shore Drive." "So it is 5500 South South Shore Drive." "It's just SHORE Drive; south is the directional." By now, even I was recognizing the potential for comedy, similar to Abbott and Costello.

I heard her consulting someone about 5500 East Lake Shore Drive. Oh, no . . . At one point, she informed me there is no building at that address, whatever that address was in her muddled mind. She couldn't mean 5500 South Shore Drive, where there's been a building since the late 1920s.

Clearly the address was getting us nowhere, so she asked my last name. "S-C-H-I-R-F," I said at 85+ decibels. "F as in Frank"—this because most people hear the last letter as an "s," so I thought I'd cut her off at that pass.

It didn't matter. "I see Fleming, Fraser, etc., but no F-C-H." Help . . .

"S as in Sam, C as in cat, H as in horse . . ." It didn't matter. My address didn't exist, my building didn't exist, and unaccountably S-C-H-I-R-F could not be found under the Fs. So she had the great idea of looking up my old address. Apparently, South Everett is not nearly as elusive an address because she found it—and me. I'm not sure how, but I may have voted with my new address (which I shall not repeat) in 2004. In 2005, the board of elections received returned mail from my old address and dismissed me with "inactive" status.

After all that, the solution was to fill out a card and mail it to the board of elections. Soon I hope to have my address, building, and registered voter status back.

But that hour of my life is gone forever.