Saturday, February 24, 2007

Dream: Trapped, confined, and hopeless

There was some rearranging at work due to space, and my former VP had put me in the middle of a long, school cafeteria-type table, with only one or two square feet of workspace. I was both trapped and cramped. I noticed one of the older partners from my old job at a workstation against the wall and commented that he must have fallen on harder times to be in the same situation as I was. He said, "It's our age. This is what happens to you once you become what is considered 'old'" [even though it isn't at all "old"]. He turned his head, and I noticed that he was wearing a hearing aid in his left ear. I thought that that was it; we are old and stupid because we cannot hear.

I think half my anxieties must have manifested themselves in that short dream, about being trapped in the job with nowhere to go and no opportunities, and being considered too old and disabled for it by others, although not by me.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

Dream: Sherwood Forest open house

I was inside a dim building at what seemed to be an open house. I looked outside, and it was under renovation. It may have been in a deep forest, too. The hosts recognized me as one of them; they were the outlaws of Sherwood Forest, and this building, part of a university, was their headquarters while it was being refurbished. I was confused because I could not see how they could hide in such a place while having an open house at which dozens of families were milling about. I looked outside again, and the rubble of renovation had been replaced by landscaping.

I may not have known who I was, but everyone seemed to know and respect me. I heard some people discussing how they didn't like the design upstairs. I found a security badge of a different kind from the one I had and went upstairs; the "design" turned out to be alcoves of pieces of scientific equipment labeled with the scientist's name.

As I was coming back down the stairs, someone who didn't recognize me asked to see my badge. I remained puzzled by the exposed hideout and the idea of an open house, not to mention my involvement. I liked the idea, but I wondered what had happened to the forest life.

Sunday, February 18, 2007

Review: Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream

Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream by Barbara Ehrenreich. Recommended.

In the 1960s, the possibility of layoffs was always present in the minds of the automotive assembly and steel workers at the Ford Motor Company Stamping Plant and Bethlehem Steel Plant in Lackawanna, New York. I had friends whose fathers were out of work for months at a time. The fear of layoffs and plant closings was so prevalent that even at a very young age I asked my dad if he were going to be laid off. "No," he assured me. "I'm so high in seniority that if they lay me off the whole plant is in trouble." Today, that threat of layoff and long-term unemployment preys on the minds of those employees who once seemed invincible—middle and upper managers in marketing, IT, human resources, even accounting. In Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream, Barbara Ehrenreich explores the bleak gray world of the white-collar unemployed.

Bait and Switch was intended to be the white-collar equivalent of Ehrenreich's previous book, Nickel and Dimed, but she soon finds that, once you are outside the fortress of "corporate America," for whatever reason, it is hard to get back inside.

As part of her effort to obtain a managerial or executive position in public relations, event planning, or communications, Ehrenreich encounters a parade of people who "did it right." They graduated from college, obtained the type of job my father would have described as "good," and worked hard and well—only to find themselves the victims of cost cutting, outsourcing, or "rightsizing." Along the way, Ehrenreich discovers the cottage industry of "career coaches." These seeming parasites on the unemployed range from the perky Kimberly, who represents "some deep coldness masked as relentless cheerfulness," to Patrick, who blames the victims and who is last seen as one himself, depressed and popping sleeping pills. Whichever approach they take, whether it's boundless optimism or unwarranted flagellation, these career coaches are skewered with Ehrenreich's detached ironic humor that highlights their greed, their cruelty, and their utter ineffectiveness.

As Ehrenreich "networks" (although not with her fellow unemployed, per the direction of her coaches), she begins to piece together what the corporate world expects, if not what corporate life is like. She goes to mind-numbing seminar after mind-numbing seminar, held in large windowless rooms, where the attendees listen with zombie-like passivity to speaker after speaker for brilliant insights that never come. Meanwhile she finds that employers care less about qualifications and experience than about likability and "passion." She is bemused to learn that employees must balance the ability to be a likable, passive team player with the appearance of being a passionate idealist. In this game, too large a swing in either direction is an invitation to leave, especially for older workers.

Ehrenreich's attitude is sometimes irritating and illogical in a way that the reader is not supposed to notice. For example, she dismisses personality tests such as the Enneagram and the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator as unscientific, with "zero predictive value even in its own terms." At every opportunity, she mentions how inaccurate the MBTI is when her results label her an "ENTJ"—after she has stated that she "race[d] through the test with the mad determination of a monkey that's been given a typewriter and assigned to generate Shakespeare's oeuvre, hoping that some passably coherent individual emerges." Her own admission damages the credibility of her otherwise well-supported criticism.

Although Ehrenreich tries to convey the misery and hopelessness of the white-collar unemployed through her descriptions of and stories about the people she meets, her efforts to do so fall flat simply because she never feels the fear that they do; she can walk away from her fake job search at any time and resume her own presumably lucrative career without going into enormous debt and worrying about possible homelessness. The reader is aware of her disengagement, which, while allowing her to view corporate America coldly and dispassionately, and with sarcasm and contempt, does not really enable her to convey the despair of the victims in the same way that a true victim could. Meanwhile, Bait and Switch: The (Futile) Pursuit of the American Dream seems to be an ill-fitting title—it's not clear what the "bait and switch" is, and the "American dream" is associated with the ability of the poor and immigrant classes to rise to prosperity, even wealth, through hard work. As a twist on this idea, it doesn't work.

It's unfortunate, although no surprise, that Ehrenreich was unable to obtain a job and to write the book that she wanted to about the inner workings of corporate America. I would like to have seen what she would have made of her experiences from the inside. As it is, her efforts, limited as they were, inspired her to encourage the downtrodden, white-collar middle class to organize and strike back. I suspect that corporate America is too strong to notice or care.

Sunday, 18 February 2007.
© 2007 by Diane L. Schirf.

Thursday, February 15, 2007

Neither leader nor follower

It's mid-February 2007, and right now it's difficult to tell if there are more candidates for the office of U.S. president or for the position of the father of Anna Nicole Smith's baby. The one offers fame and infamy, depending on one's perspective, while the other offers fame, infamy, and possibly large amounts of money. Maybe both do.

In the end, of course, there can be only president and one father. The one depends on events and the beliefs, opinions, and moods of voters, and the other on being in the right place at the right time. Perhaps it amounts to the same thing.

At a gathering for contender Rudy Guiliano, a young woman who liked what he said told a reporter, "We are all Republicans." As someone who is not a Republican, or a Democrat, I was disappointed by the narrowness of this view, which (in different forms) dominates politics. First and foremost, we are all Americans. No, first and foremost, we are all humans. That is something that we can't choose, we can't change, and we can't deny.

What is a leader of humans? Hitler, Mussolini, and Stalin were absolute leaders, cult figures with ideology as religion. In business, there used to be the "boss," the executive or manager known to subordinates as "Mr. Carruthers," the honcho whose authority, at least in his sphere of influence, was absolute. Today, absolute authority has fallen out of favor, for the most part. Everybody is a member of a team. Even the president has a team, the Cabinet.

In any case, whether dictator by decree, democratically elected official, or promoted executive, leaders have to have qualities that gain and retain the confidence (or fear) of their followers and peers. The best way to accomplish that is to tell the people what they want to hear. Tell the populace that they deserve to overrun Europe; tell shareholders that costs will be cut and profits increased; tell employees that their satisfaction is important to the company's success—and then throw enough bones to all your constituents to keep them happy, or at least occupied. To be a leader, you must have a persona with presence and messages that resonate.

The truth rarely resonates. No one wants to be told that their new polka-dot dress is ugly or that either taxes need to be raised or services cut (or both). We want new roads but we don't want to pay for them. We expect our leaders to produce a new highway without our producing the funds.

Some aboriginal peoples chose their leaders because they were perceived to have extraordinary spiritual powers or because they performed exceptionally well in battle. Perhaps it was a remnant of this thinking that led to the election of the Father of Our Country, a tribute to George Washington's popularity as the military leader whose generalship helped to win the war. Today, though, I look at our leaders, business and political, with a jaded eye, knowing that few, if any, have the courage to risk career or political suicide by telling people the truth. To lead you must lie.

Under those circumstances, I can neither a leader nor a follower be.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Dream: Baby in worsted

I was riding my bicycle through the countryside, both wooded and open, and felt carefree. Then, suddenly, I was in a home office paneled with dark wood, with electrodes stuck to my chest, having a physical exam. I could tell by the attitude of the doctor and by my labored breathing that the results were not good, that they were in fact terrible. I thought of The Boy and began to wonder if he would walk in and see me like that, and what he would think.

Then I was at a gathering, and a friend came by. Suddenly a stroller rolled up on its own, as though brought by remote control. In it was the baby of another friend. Then The Boy appeared, and instinctively I took off the baby's worsted cap and mittens and counted her fingers. For the first time, The Boy stopped and noticed me, but I did not seem to care much (although I was careful not to mess up counting the fingers).

Sunday, February 11, 2007

Quotation from "Companies Don't Need Brainy People"

"Think what characterises the really intelligent person. They can think for themselves. They love abstract ideas. They can look dispassionately at the facts. Humbug is their enemy. Dissent comes easily to them, as does complexity. These are traits that are not only unnecessary for most business jobs, they are actually a handicap when it comes to rising through the ranks of large companies."
—Lucy Kellaway, "Companies Don't Need Brainy People," Financial Times, November 22, 2004

Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Dream: Alpine flying and a forest house

6 February 2007

I was flying with two or three men on the way to a competition. My dad may have been one of them and may have been the pilot. The plane appeared to be open, and we were soaring in brilliant midday sunshine over glowing green alpine meadows. Then the flight, which had been marvelous, almost fantastic, became a series of unplanned, inexplicable landings that seemed to lessen our chances of reaching and winning the competition and even of surviving. Most important, though, was my desire to return to that sunny alpine flight, the feeling of which could not be recaptured.

Then I was hiding in a dark cottage with meandering halls, deep in a dense, dark forest. Although it seemed to be remote, there were men outside looking for the occupant, who was the butt of their malicious fun, but he and my parents had left by a back way as he was taking them somewhere.

Two or three men peered through the windows, while I tried to take advantage of the oddly meandering halls to hide myself. The problem was that every movement left me exposed at some window or another. There was no place to hide, although it felt like there should be.

Convinced that the occupant was still there, the men came in and found me. I felt cornered, then sexually threatened by them, even without any spoken or overt movements. I thought about the dense, dark forest around the cottage and remembered suddenly that it had seemed magically artificial, like a well-executed stage set or the product of a introverted imagination. It was not as remote, isolated, or natural as I wanted and needed it to be.

Saturday, February 3, 2007

The Ayn Rand "Objectivism" award

Winners of the Ayn Rand "Objectivism" award include people who:

Public transportation edition

  • Strut into the semi-enclosed bus shelter to light and consume their nauseating cowboy killers.
  • Slyly cut ahead of everyone in line to board by edging in from the side.
  • Rush to the front of the line only to spend minutes rummaging in their pockets for the fare. Points if they pay in pennies.
  • Stand in front of the fare reader, blocking it and the passage to the rest of the bus; after all, once they're on the bus, that's all that matters. An extra prize if they seem annoyed at being bumped by those trying to get past.
  • Continue to sit reading their newspaper or book while the elderly, disabled, and pregnant stand.
  • Rummage through their purses or pockets, jabbing their seat mate generously with their flailing elbows.
  • Spread their packages or legs out over an adjacent seat and don't move them even as the bus becomes standing room only. Extra credit for taking up two or even more adjacent seats.
  • Manage to sit half on their neighbor and then act surprised. They may forfeit the award, however, if they apologize.
  • Stand in the doorway of the bus asking the driver directions as though he or she is the Shell Answer Man, while green lights come and green lights go.
  • Sprawl their legs into the aisle so others have to step over them; bonus if they act annoyed when they're kicked or tripped over.
  • Spread their short legs so as to take up a seat and a half.
  • Open the windows on below-freezing days.
  • Discuss personal business as loudly as possible on their mobiles.
  • Eat, drink, and be merry on the bus, and leave the remnants behind to encourage the rats and cockroaches.

Driving edition

  • Use the horn freely at red lights.
  • Believe that signs like "No Turn on Red" are for others.
  • Make left-hand turns into pedestrians who have the right of way, expecting said pedestrians to scatter.
  • Go through the changing yellow light to ensure the intersection is blocked.
  • Tune out the deafening wail of sirens and booms of fire truck horns 10 feet away.
  • Park over the line to avoid scratches.
  • Talk on their mobiles as though they were sitting comfortably at a desk, not about to run over three pedestrians in the crosswalk.
  • Shoot out of parking garages at top speed undeterred by either pedestrians on the sidewalk or traffic.

Grocery shopping edition

  • Bring the entire family of five during the busiest time and then let the children loose.
  • Stand in the 10 items or less line with a full cart and pretend not to have noticed the prominent signs.
  • Park the grocery cart on one side of the aisle and themselves on the other and act put out or surprised when anyone wants to get past them.
  • Park the grocery cart in the precise middle of the aisle, with same reaction as above.
  • Stand in front of a section whole minutes at a time to contemplate every product, size, and price, oblivious to the half dozen people that they're blocking who know what they want but who can't get to it.
  • Plop refrigerated and frozen perishables they've decided they no longer want onto the magazine rack while loudly complaining about increasing prices.
  • Stand in line at the cash register, then send their spouse and kids to do the actual shopping.
  • Argue with the cashier over the price of every item, no matter how long the line is behind them.

Public places edition

  • Plow through everyone who's trying to get off the elevator, train, bus, etc., in their hurry to get on.
  • Wait until they are at the metal detector to fish around in their five pockets, slowly removing items one at a time and holding up everyone who's behind them. Additional points for those who go through this ritual every day at their workplace security's checkpoint as though they've never had to empty their pockets before and as though they've never held everyone else up before.
  • Walk three abreast on the sidewalk as though there's no one else on it.
  • Are the first to sit at the movies and take the row's outside seats, ensuring a dozen people will have to crawl and trip over them.
  • Cough relentlessly during musical or theatrical performances; after all, it's not like we want to be suckered into the magic of escapism at such times.
  • "Forget" to turn their mobiles off in restaurants and at performances. Everyone's a doctor on call.
  • Go through the single partition of a revolving door two at a time.
  • Let doors smack back into someone else's face.
  • Talk with their mouths full; after all, they have so many important things to say.
  • Use their mobile phones in the public restroom. Best scenario: While flushing.
  • Reach across people in the restroom for soap or towels rather than walking around. After all, the rest of the world is just in the way.

Technology edition

  • E-mail coworkers five minutes after e-mailing their initial request, demanding to know why it hasn't been answered.
  • Delete e-mails from coworkers and subordinates unread, then wonder why they never got the information they requested.
  • Blame the misdialed person when they get a wrong number.
  • Call IT every time they do something stupid, like turn off their menubars.
  • Call an IT person directly rather than using the help desk, because IT has nothing better to do than perform personal favors