Thursday, February 28, 2013

Why I Write

Sometimes people question the motivations of a writer. Writers are weird. Writers think too much and tend to hole up in quiet places and spend hours alone, often putting in lots of work for nothing more than the joy of writing itself. Making a living from writing is really hard. There's competition and rejection and writer's block, and there's no such thing as a writer getting paid for "showing up." Writers have to deliver. No words on the page? Um ... no pay, then. Why would anyone want to bother with all that? 

In other words, why do writers write? 

Well, I don’t know why all writers write, but I know why I write, so here goes.

I write because …

I have something to say. In case you haven’t met me, my name is Crystal, and I am opinionated. The world is an interesting place inhabited by interesting people saying and doing interesting things, and when I hear something that makes me “feel some kind of way” as we say in Philly, I just want to tell folks about it. I believe ideas, not money, truly make the world go ‘round, and it just so happens that writing is an excellent way to share ideas—both mine and others’.

I can. Listen, not everyone can produce a piece of writing that is clear, engaging, logically organized, and (by and large) free of typos and spelling mistakes. Some people have great ideas but lousy grammar and spelling skills. Some people have the grammar down, but their writing is stilted and boring. Other people have loads of passion, and that’s good, but they’re all over the place. You can’t understand what the hell they’re talking about because their writing is disorganized or chaotic, even. Has everything I’ve ever written been read-worthy? No. But I can still write. It’s a gift, and I didn’t earn it. Don’t hate.

I feel. I am a sensitive sort who feels stuff a little too much sometimes, and writing is therapeutic. Writing lets me get out all the “junk” I have inside that causes me to feel anxious, angry, or sad. Writing puts a kink in the loop running round and round and round in my head and makes me feel useful—I've taken that junk and created something good. 

I’m mortal. When my mother died at the age of fifty-five, I became very aware of my own mortality. In fact, I became terrified of my mortality and actually went through a phase of being afraid of the dark. That fear passed, thank the Lord, but I’m still not going to live forever. And when I’m gone, I want my children to have a tangible account of who I was, what I believed, and how much I loved them, in my own words.

I’ve found no better way to connect with a variety of people, and I need people. I’m a Blue, remember? What? You didn’t read that piece? Sigh. Well, take my word for it. Almost nothing makes me happier than when a stranger contacts me because something I wrote resonated with him in such a way that he was compelled to let me know. It reminds me of the commonality of the human experience, and that’s beautiful. 

What about you? Why motivates YOU to do what you do?

Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Five Things I’ve Learned About Life From 'Scandal'

A few weeks ago I wrote a piece about my disappointment with the Scandal episode where Fitz murdered Vera.

This week, I’m going to sheepishly admit that—I’m back on board.

What can I say? Rhimes’ decision to move the storyline ahead ten months was very clever, indeed. I haven’t exactly forgotten about the murder, but it was ten months ago. That’s a lifetime in television-land. It’s a new day now. All is forgiven. Kind of, sort of.

Oh, I’m still hating on Fitz’s personality change, and the way he dogged poor Liv during the baptism (seriously Shonda? A baptism? Is NOTHING sacred?) made me feel real sorry for her, even if she is a masochist.

But nevertheless, I’m back. And now that I am, I’ve been giving some thought to what the heck happened here and what it has to teach us about life.

Here’s what I came up with.

Lesson #1—Life is NOT a meritocracy, folks.
If life were a meritocracy, and the most-most qualified person always got the prize, Fitz would have won the election without needing the oh-so-illegal intervention of Hollis and gang. But because life is not a meritocracy, and crazy/two-faced/right-wing zealot Sally was on her way to the Presidency, something had to be done. (By the way, one of these days I’ll write a post about the jacked-up portrayal of Christians on mainstream television. But not today.)

Lesson #2—Most Americans are stupid.
See lesson #1, okay? If the American people could have been trusted to make a good decision, David could have kept his reputation and his job, Fitz wouldn’t have gotten shot and now be inhabited by an alien, that young White House staffer wouldn’t have been killed, Fitz wouldn’t have had to kill Vera, and Fitz and Liv would still be star-crossed lovers sitting on her couch for “just one minute.” Dumb American people. Look what you did!!

Lesson #3—Bitter old ladies don’t deserve to live. Murder is wrong, but Vera was old, sick, and bitter, so if someone had to be suffocated to death, well …

Lesson#4—Some people really shouldn’t be parents. Fitz was on the edge, but it was at the mention of his father that you knew some shit was about to go down. Oh, what a difference a nurturing, supportive, non-philandering dad could have made! Fitz’s whole life might have taken a completely different direction, and maybe he’d have had the self-esteem to marry a gal like Liv, instead of needing to marry a scheming, manipulative woman like Mellie who’d do his dirty work.

And, finally …

Lesson #5—The benefit of a death-bed confession is overrated. Seriously, you should have kept that crap buttoned up, Vera! Now you’re dead (yes, that was bound to happen anyway, but still), and Fitz has blood on his hands. And he’s not like Cyrus, okay? Sooner or later he’ll no longer be able to live with himself, and then Rhimes will be forced to make something truly awful happen …

What about you? Have you learned any “life lessons” from watching Scandal? Please share!

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Should Employers Be Mandated To Provide Sick Time?

Today I received an email message from a colleague about the “2013 Earned Sick Days Bill,” which is a Philadelphia proposal to mandate paid sick time for qualified part-time and full-time employees. Currently, there is no state, local, or federal law that mandates employers to provide paid sick leave for workers, although many employers do.

Whenever I read proposals like this, I find I am of two minds. On the one hand, I believe that business owners ought to be able to make decisions about what’s best for their businesses, especially when those decisions come with a price tag. On the other hand, I believe that a civil society will take measures to safeguard the humanity of its citizens and that sometimes, business owners have to be given strong incentive to get on board with that.

The Coalition for Healthy Families and Workplaces offers five reasons to support this bill—
  1. 210,000 workers in Philadelphia don’t have paid sick leave and need it
  2. It’s good public policy
  3. Businesses save money when they offer paid sick leave
  4. Illnesses spread in the workplace, which is unhealthy
  5. When people with no sick leave get sick (or their children get sick) and are absent from work, their ability to pay for basic living expenses such as rent is compromised, and that has a negative effect on the community as a whole
There’s no question in my mind that working without the benefit of paid sick leave is stressful, especially for primary caretakers. Heck, except for my first hellacious job right out of college, I’ve always worked at companies with decent benefits (and then I got into HR, and the benefits got even better, if I don’t say so myself ) and having a sick child or being sick myself was still stressful, because I’d feel guilty about taking time away from work, conscious as I was of the negative stereotypes often attributed to working mothers.

True story.

Male Manager: I  know I shouldn’t say this, but now that ____ is married, I’m sure it’s just a matter of time before she gets pregnant and has to go on maternity leave.

Progressive HR Manager (that would be moi, okay?): And?

Male Manager: Well, I’m worried. I’ve invested all this time in her training, and she’s really good at what she does. I can’t afford to lose her.

Progressive HR Manager: And?

Male Manager: This is so annoying!

Progressive HR Manager: Where’s Joe today?

Male Manager (without a hint of irony): He took the day off to see his daughter’s play.

Progressive HR Manager (amused yet incredulous): Do you hear yourself?! Stop worrying about things that haven’t happened yet, and so what if ____ gets pregnant? Congratulate her and hire a temp. It’ll be fine.

See what I mean?

While maternity leave, which typically lasts for about six weeks, and an occasional "school play" day is not comparing apples to apples, my point is that some managers just want some people to work all the time, and that’s unrealistic and inhumane in my view. People get sick, and even healthy people need rest. So, I’m not really enthusiastic about protecting an employer’s right to work his employees to death. 

At the same time, under the proposed bill, leave would accrue based on hours worked, and so employers would have to somehow track the leave earned, which could mean additional labor costs or additional payroll costs on top of the cost of the leave itself. This won’t be a big deal for larger companies, but it could prove to be burdensome to smaller employers. In other words, I worry about the unforeseen costs of effecting this bill for those good employers who really aren’t trying to take advantage of their employers. (But yeah, screw those other guys.)

If, unlike me, you’re completely clear in your support of this bill, there’s a hearing on March 5th. Click here for more information. Maybe I’ll see you there. Who knows?

Monday, February 25, 2013

WHYY Talks School Yard Bullying

Today WHYY 90.9 FM Voices in the Family presented “The Minefield of Bullying.”

Voices in the Family is hosted by Dan Gottlieb, and today’s guests were Emily Bazelon, author of Sticks and Stones: Defeating the Culture of Bullying and Rediscovering the Power of Character and Empathy, and Dr. Charles Williams, III, a professor at Drexel University.

I’ve written quite a bit about workplace bullying, so it was interesting to hear experts speak about bullying among children and to take note of the various similarities.

But before we get to those, one big difference is that many states, including Pennsylvania, have anti-bullying laws that require schools to take action to create prevention, intervention, and education programs about bullying as well as ensure that there are disciplinary measures in place to hold school bullies accountable. For these I am grateful.

But, unfortunately, workplace bullying is legal, so long as the target is not being harassed because of his or her membership in a protected class. One day I’d like to see that change.

Williams made the point that many adults still don’t understand the harmful effects of bullying and consider it a rite of passage. And, when parents are concerned and do intervene, many children report that the situation gets worse.

Unless your mom’s name is Gwendolyn Johnson, that is.

When I was in the third or fourth grade and being bullied by a group of girls at school, I told my mom. Not right away, but eventually.

Well, the next chance she got she marched right up to that school to deal with the problem. But she didn’t bother speaking with the administrators. Oh no. Instead she went directly to the playground to have a little chat with the offenders, after I’d pointed them out.

I don’t know what she said to them, but I do know they left me alone after that. Yeah, they spent another five minutes teasing me about having my “Mommy” fight my battles, but that’s about it. Of course, this was back in the day when kids were still scared of adults.

Now lest you think this is a terrible story and that no adult should ever approach a child in this manner, let me tell you another story.

When one of my sons was about eight or nine, I learned that he was being bullied at school. So I did the responsible thing and made an appointment with the teacher. The teacher told me that she knew this kid was a problem—she’d gotten multiple complaints—but her hands were tied. She said she’d even complained to the Principal but with no results, although she encouraged me to take a stab at it. Outraged, and thinking that I would probably be wasting my time, I began walking to the Principal’s office. Just then the recess bell rang. And what do you think I did? I did just as my mother had twenty years earlier, that’s what.

A caller into Voices in the Family relayed her story of being bullied years earlier and how it still affects her as an adult. She said that she’d reported the bullying, but no adult had done anything. As a result, her sense of self had been significantly compromised. She told Gottlieb that because no one had stood up for her, she began to believe that she wasn’t worth standing up for. So go ahead and call me an irresponsible adult, I don’t care. I wanted my son to know that he mattered, just like my mother had done for me years earlier.

Bazelon, herself a target of bullies as a child, said that now she “doesn’t take others’ good will for granted,” which I think is yet another pretty powerful testimony about the damaging effects of this phenomenon.

One thing I was pleased to hear both Bazelon and Williams state is that some bullies strategically use aggression as a manipulation technique. And while it may seem odd to hear me say that this pleased me, understand that I find it frustrating that we sometimes give bullies a pass because of the theory that “hurt people, hurt others.” That’s true, and some bullies are “crying out for help,” as Bazelon put it. But others aren’t, and they don’t need our empathy, which they’ll use to manipulate us further. Instead they need discipline and boundaries.

Just like in the workplace, school yard bullies are supported by everyone else’s need to be accepted. To paraphrase Williams, we are social beings, and nothing is more painful for social beings than to be ostracized from the group. This facet of human nature keeps those who witness the bullying, and believe it is wrong, from speaking out. It’s true when we’re ten years old, and it’s true when we’re forty years old, a fact I personally find sad as shit, but what are you gonna do?

Bazelon says that we must balance protecting our kids with their need to learn how to  manage conflict, and I completely agree. She’s hopeful that we can teach our kids how not to bully as well as effective ways to intervene when they witness bullying.

I hope she’s right.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Mother Love

I am by no means the life of the party, but I think I’m pretty funny.  In fact, sometimes I am hilarious. I crack myself up.

My two older sons, aged twenty and twenty-four, think differently. They have made it quite clear that they do not consider me amusing in the slightest.

But I’ve seen them try and hide the upwards turn of their lips after I’ve said something clever. And I know there are times when they appreciate my humor. And I appreciate seeing them smile.

When I was in college, there was this guy I was crazy about, but he wasn’t as crazy about me. I did all kinds of things to get his attention, and when all was said and done, it didn’t really make any difference. My mother counseled me through this time, and when I came out of the other side, I told myself that I would never, ever chase a guy again. Never.

A few months later, Edward and I started dating, and after getting into some disagreement about something, I don’t know what about, he said words to the effect of, “Well, if you don’t like it we don’t have to be together,” and without batting an eye I said “Okay,” and promptly ended our date and went home. Like I said, never again. (I’d barely walked in my front door before Edward came a callling, by the way.)

But I broke that vow when my boys were born. I’ve been chasing after them for years and I probably always will. Oh, on the surface I’m cool. Christian turns five and says “That’s it. No more kisses for you, Mom,” and I quickly back off. Adam spends more time with his friend’s mom than at home, and I try and be mature about it (sort of). Thomas declares that I am not to call him pet names in public, and I assent.

Underneath, however, I am like a love-struck teen for my boys, seeking their approval and their smiles. And once in a while I get both, and that makes me smile.  

Saturday, February 23, 2013

Oh No He Didn’t!

Here are five of the most intriguing/ hilarious/crazy headlines I've seen this week.

From Clutch Magazine
Landlord Goes Ham on Tenant’s Butt for Unpaid Rent
A tenant is late with the rent, so the landlord gives him an old-school whupping.

From Gawker
World’s Coolest Boy Calls 911 So He Won’t Have to Go to Bed; Gets to Stay Up Late AND Meet a Cop
A young boy and his mom disagree about bedtime. He gets a little huffy, and she tells him to call the cops. Then he does.

From The Onion
Area Man Panics After Accidentally "Liking" 381 of His Ex-Girlfriend’s Facebook Photos
He didn’t mean to do it, but it kept happening over and over and over again anyway.

From Jezebel
Nebraska College Kid Says Feminism "Achieved Its Goals" So Women Should Shut *** **** Up Now
Heavy sigh. I almost didn’t include this one, because the “Nebraska college kid” who wrote the piece being lambasted in Jezebel is, well … a kid. But I read his piece, and his opinions are so obnoxious, I’m going for it. He had me at “No longer do people need to be risk takers, strong and resilient to survive in the world. So, in an economy that relies on communication and thinking over physical strength, women are excelling …” Sure dude.

From the Grio
Man Fired After Being Charged with Slapping Toddler, Using N-Word on Flight
The firing part is not so surprising, but the rest sure is. An apparently inebriated man gets his knickers in a knot over a crying toddler and decides to take matters into his own hands. I hope this guy gets into treatment sooner rather than later and that he enjoys paying this kid’s college tuition.

Friday, February 22, 2013

How To Talk Black

I saw that Clutch Magazine had posted a piece about code switching and "talking black," and it made me think about my on-again, off-again, love affair with “y’all,” “ain’t,” and double negatives.

As a child, my peers used to tease me for “talking white,” which basically means, I think, enunciating my words, using large words, and putting words together in complicated ways. This is not, in fact, the way most white people speak but instead is the way little black kids think white people speak. (And it sure as hell isn’t the way white people write, ‘cause I was a manager in corporate American for several years, and I saw first-hand that many of those particular white people couldn’t string a damn sentence together.)

But I digress.

As I was saying, I’d get teased for “talking white,” and I’d always think that the accuser was really dumb, because white people don’t own words, and I know that. Everyone in my family “talked white.” No big deal.

Jive time turkey mother
Then I got to college, the University of Pennsylvania here in Philly, and all of a sudden, I felt very self-conscious about the way I spoke. But not because it was “too white,” but because it was “too black.” In particular, I determined that I really needed to ditch the use of the word “y’all,” which regularly crept up in my speech.

“Y’all” is not exclusively a black thing, but it is a black urban thing. I imagine it as passed down from our Southern ancestors who migrated North, along with their recipes for sweet potato pie and macaroni and cheese. No white person I’d ever met said “y’all,” and when I used it I felt exposed. Common and low-class. That is, until I met Dr. Parker.

Dr. Parker was a researcher at Penn, and I was her research assistant. Dr. Parker was from Georgia, and she said “y’all.” A lot.

I admired Dr. Parker very much. She was smart, accomplished, and nice. She was a natural teacher, a good writer, and a great boss. So, that was it. If “y’all” was good enough for Dr. Parker, I reasoned, then it was darn sure good enough for me.

I graduated from college, entered the workforce, and pretty much spoke as everyone else. But as the years went by, something funny happened.

I can “code switch” with the best of them, but the older I got the more I began to appreciate the rhythms and cadences of “black language.” I like the flow of the well-place double-negative, and I like the word “ain’t.” So, on occasion and for effect, I’d “speak black.”

Once I used the word “ain’t,” while speaking with my white boss, and he corrected me, telling me that his father had always corrected him. Yeah, whatever. I’d worked in this organization long enough for my boss to become thoroughly familiar with my language skills, and he knew, or should have known, what I said before—that there were managers in the organization who couldn’t string a sentence together. I found it ironic that he concerned himself with my “ain’ts” but had nothing to say about their spelling mistakes, grammatical errors, run-on sentences, incomplete thoughts, and just plain poor writing. Please man.

And so now, at this point in my life, I accept my black Southern roots and its influence on my diet and my language.

When I was little, a favorite expression of my Dad’s was “You have to learn to crawl before you can learn to run.” He’d tell me this while sloooowly helping me with my math homework. I just wanted the answer, and he wanted to explain everything leading up to the answer. Ugh. But my Dad’s voice would often come to my mind when my boss corrected me. (Which occurred a few more times, because then I began saying "ain't" just to bug him.)

I know how to run. I’ve mastered the English language. I’ve earned the right to violate a few rules now and again if it suits my mood or my spirit. Go lecture that manager down the hall who doesn’t know the difference between “there” and “their,” for God’s sake, and leave me alone. You ain’t got nothing for me.

Thursday, February 21, 2013

Going Postal

Today for the third time in less than seven days I’ve gotten someone else’s mail by mistake.

The first two pieces were for people with the same house number but who live on different streets and in different counties. 

The piece today had a different everything. House number, street name, and county.

Not to be cynical or jump to conclusions, but could it be that the mail carriers are pissed about the recent decision to end Saturday mail delivery and are getting a little sloppy on the job?

I know for a fact that the postal employees in my neighborhood have engaged in vindictive behavior from time to time.

Many years ago, I went to the local post office to buy some stamps. While purchasing the stamps, I asked the clerk at the window could she please mail this? “This” was an envelope containing payment for my gas bill.

She told me, “There’s a mail box outside.”

I said, “I know, but since I’m here, I thought I’d just give it to you.”

She sucked her teeth and reluctantly took my envelope.

Do you know that I got a shut-off notice before the check cleared, some four weeks later? Four weeks?!

I’m pretty sure that heifer threw my envelope on the floor and kicked it under her desk, expecting it to remain there forever. As I imagine it, the envelope was finally rescued by her kind-hearted but na├»ve coworker.

But flat-out maliciousness is not the only problem.

Just last week, I missed a package delivery. I was home, my husband was home, and my oldest son was home, but nobody heard the postal carrier knock on the door.

Seeing the pink “Sorry we missed you” slip mixed in with the regular credit card offers and catalogues, I said “Shoot!” According to the slip, I could retrieve my package the next morning, but I had appointments the next day, and I didn’t know if I’d make it to the post office before closing time.

Now, the post office is right down the street from me, and I know that all the undelivered mail is returned to that office the same day.

So later that afternoon I took a chance and went to the post office with my slip, hoping I could get my package early. I was praying that the clerk at the window wouldn’t notice the date on the slip and say anything to me.

Yeah, that didn’t happen.

Reading the slip she said, “Oh, this was delivered today. You’ll have to come back tomorrow. See, the slip says to come back tomorrow.”

Crap. I said, “I know, but I won’t be able to get the package tomorrow. I understand that undelivered mail is returned to this office the same day, so I thought I’d see if it was here.”

She frowned, then sighed. “I’ll check, but next time, could you please come back tomorrow? The returned mail isn’t brought to the front of the office until this evening. Now I’ll have to walk all the way to the back.”


To her credit, she paused and then said, “I know you don’t care about that.”

I smiled. “I appreciate your extra efforts.”

She didn’t find my package.

Okay, perhaps I should have followed the rules or simply been more patient, but imagine getting such a response from a customer service representative at a private business office?

It’s true that bad customer service is a particular pet peeve. But this business with the mail delivery is not just an irritant. If I’m getting someone else’s mail, there’s a good chance that someone else is getting mine, right?

Call me simple, but I’ve always marveled at the wonder of a letter being mailed from anywhere in the states and pretty much landing anywhere in the states a mere two days later for less than fifty cents. In other words, I’m grateful for the post office.

But don’t keep jacking up my mail, okay? It’s a little scary.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Marriage Is a Beautiful Ideal

I know there are those who think marriage is generally a really bad idea. They are anti-marriage, and they’ve got their reasons.

I don’t agree with their reasons. I think marriage is the most beautiful ideal ever created.

Many marriages are a study in contrasts. Mine is no exception. When I think of my relationship to my husband, Edward, lyrics to Adele’s “My Same” come to mind.

"You like to be so close/I like to be alone/I like to sit on chairs/And you prefer the                floor/Walking with each other/Think we’ll never match at all/But we do."

I’m definitely the “alone” sort, while Ed is more the “likes to be so close” kind. Sometimes I have to remind him “Arms length, buddy. Arms length! You’re breathing my air. Back it up.”

You see, Edward is an "affection" guy, while I’m more of an “acts of service” gal.

I am prone to guilt and shame, while it’s almost impossible to embarrass Ed.

Ed has hoarding tendencies. Clutter makes my head hurt.

Ed is extroverted. I am introverted.

Ed will eat anything. I’m downright picky.

We will be married twenty-five years this month. They said it wouldn’t last. (Seriously, they said that. I’m not just making this up for dramatic effect.)

People ask me the secret to a long marriage. I tell them “I keep asking him to leave, but he won’t go away.”

That’s true. But what’s even more true is—we’ve decided to stay married. Because we know.

Today I can’t stand you. Tomorrow I’ll be thanking God for you.

Today I wonder how I can possibly live with you. Tomorrow I’ll be wondering how I’d ever do without you.

Today you hurt me, and I hated you. Tomorrow I’ll hurt you and hate myself.

Marriage. The beautiful ideal.

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Clueless Coffee Drinkers and Rude Recruiters

A friend and I were talking the other day about how common  rudeness has become. He told me about a woman standing next to him in Starbucks who elbowed her way into a seat, seemingly unconcerned with whether doing so invaded anyone else’s space, and I told him about the driver who tried to mow me down while I was crossing the lot at Macy’s.

Then we both shared stories about a favorite  pet peeve—recruiters and hiring managers who invite job applicants to interview for positions and then just disappear. With them you get no “thanks, but no thanks” email messages or letters. You get nothing. You get silence. You get the sound of crickets.

My friend and I have hired people, so we know what it’s like. We know it’s no fun sending out rejection notices, especially when you have to say no to someone you really liked but who wasn’t quite right for the job or for a more sensitive reason—like her workplace personality assessment tests showed she probably wasn’t very truthful with her responses. But, we also know that it’s plain rude to invite someone to speak with you about a position you need filled and then leave that person hanging. A quick email with the standard “You’re great, but we’ve offered the position to an applicant who more closely fits our needs” is all it takes, and it’s not that hard.

Yes, even this guy deserves a follow up.

I’ve heard stories of recruiters receiving hundreds of responses to a single ad, and I wouldn’t expect someone in that position to respond to every inquiry sent. However, everyone the recruiter or hiring manager interviews (whether via telephone or in person) deserves a follow up. And, sadly the norm has become to leave that person flapping in the wind. It’s unbelievable, really, and absolutely lacking in common courtesy.

Career advisor Alison Green of Ask a Manager admits that this “bad interviewer behavior” gets under her skin. She regularly gets questions from frustrated job seekers complaining about insensitive interviewers who just don’t get back to applicants. In fact, Green got so many complaints she created the You-Suck-As-An-Interviewer Automatic Letter Generator. The “automatic” feature is now defunct, but you can still click on the link and read the letter.

If you’re a recruiter or hiring manager who’s made a habit of this practice, I sure wish you’d stop. To quote Green, your candidate deserves better, and this behavior makes you and your company look really unprofessional.

If you’re a job seeker who has encountered this type of behavior, take heart. It probably had nothing to do with you. Some people are just rude. And apparently they’re getting more rude every day.

Monday, February 18, 2013

Evil Capitalists and Other Crimes Against Nature

Before heading out to church yesterday morning, I caught the last ninety minutes of Michael Moore’s Capitalism: A Love Story, which was rated R for some bizarre reason.

I know a lot of people like to make fun of Moore, but I’m not one of them. Yes, he’s a little over the top sometimes (like when he places crime scene tape across the gates of AIG and then attempts a citizen's arrest of its CEO), but I believe he takes on good causes, and he always starts me thinking.

In the movie, Moore talks about Franklin D. Roosevelt’s proposed Second Bill of Rights, which would have guaranteed every American a job with a living wage, among other things.

Now, this was the second time in two weeks I’d heard someone on television refer to employment as a “right,” so my ears really perked up. (For the record, the first time was during Michelle Alexander’s televised lecture  about the need to revise our criminal justice system.)

Of course, the ability to earn a living wage is important for most people for many reasons. Yet, is this something the government is in a position to provide? How would that work exactly? I really have to question this given Moore’s statement that capitalism is “evil,” because without capitalism, how are jobs to be created? Moore offers “democracy” as an antidote to capitalism, and I confess I have no idea what the hell he’s talking about.

I guess I’ve been an American too long, because I can’t see how there can be a democracy, that is—government of the people, by the people, and for the people—without capitalism. Socialism and democracy don’t go together, in my view, and communism and democracy surely don’t go together. Perhaps there’s some other economic system of which I’m unaware that goes neatly with a democracy?

And I have to say, I’m not seeing why capitalism, in its purest form, is evil. Merriam-Webster defines capitalism as “an economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.”

Now I know there are lots of places for this ideal to be corrupted by human failings, greed being at the top of the list, but is that a reason to throw the baby out with the bath water?

So let’s think about this again. Moore seems to believe that every American should be guaranteed a job, but he thinks capitalism is evil. Maybe I’m missing something, but how can everyone be guaranteed a job without (a) the government providing it or (b) the government providing mucho incentive to private business owners to provide it? And, as a tax payer, I’m not liking either of these scenarios. While I have no problem with government jobs created to fulfill a legitimate need, I can’t see anything but trouble when the government generates work just so people can have jobs. Heck, that actually happens sometimes in the private sector, and trust me, even there it ain’t pretty.

Why? Because when you start guaranteeing employment aside from effort, any hope of a meritocracy goes right out the window. Don’t believe me? Go talk to a few city workers about their performance review process. Like I said, this is maddening enough when you work for a private agency that’s poorly managed but that, theoretically at least, has an actual incentive to be creative and innovative and interested in the pursuit of excellence. At least that dumb company will eventually go out of business, making way for entrepreneurs who want to add value to the economy. But what’ll you have if the government is the sole driver of commerce?

Let me be clear. I’m absolutely no fan of unfettered capitalism run amok that tramples over individual rights and human dignities in the process. Moore’s coverage of the Republic Windows and Doors shut-in really captured my imagination, and I agree with the woman who wondered aloud how some people can sleep at night. Imagine firing two-hundred and fifty workers with just three days’ notice (in violation of the WARN Act) and claiming you have no money to pay for accrued but unused vacation time and severance pay? It’s just wrong.

But I’ll say it again. Perhaps I’ve been an American too long, because I don’t think getting rid of capitalism is the answer. Do you? 

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Your Kid Is Probably a Narcissist and Other Great News

In "We Are Raising a Generation of Deluded Narcissists," Dr. Keith Ablow argues that today’s young adults are more narcissistic than ever, and before too long, there will be hell to pay.

Ablow references a study by Jean M. Twenge, PhD, author of Generation Me and The Narcissism Epidemic, which found that “college students are more likely than ever to call themselves gifted and driven to succeed, even though their test scores and time spent studying are decreasing.”

Twenge, herself a member of Gen Y, and I go way back. I read Generation Me several years ago, after running to the bookstore to learn more about the young person I’d hired who’d lied on his resume and spent more time online chatting with his numerous friends about the next keg party than actually doing his job.

Now, I’ve worked with many young people, including my son Adam, a college student, who were clearly talented and had great work ethics. But I’ve also worked with a few who had egos out to here (insert arm span) and seemed to think they were the star in their own little reality series. So, when Ablow says, “Using Twitter, young people can pretend they are worth ‘following’ as though they have real-life fans, when all that is really happening is the mutual fanning of false love and false fame” I think he may have a point.

I like Twitter, but if you read some of the tweets, you definitely get the sense that some people are a little confused about reality versus fantasy. For example, I follow Jill Scott, and every day (in fact multiple times a day) one of her fans tweets about “lovely Jill Scott,” “beautiful Jill Scott,” “foxy Jill Scott, I love you,” etc. Does Ms. Scott ever tweet back? Hell no. (Not that I’m blaming her exactly.) But my point is, this is weird. I’m all for self-promotion or dissemination of information on Twitter, but constantly talking to people who aren’t talking back? Because um … you’re not in an actual relationship? That’s a little strange. (And no, it’s not the same thing as having a blog, dammit!)

Of course, narcissism is not limited to young people. Twenge writes in Generation Me that the modern concept of  “self-esteem,” which is really about self-love, “pops up in everything from women’s magazines to song lyrics to celebrity interviews,” and she claims that we’ve all begun to drink the Kool-Aid. For example, if the notion that we must love ourselves before loving others sounds like wisdom to you, I'll bet your tongue is bright red. As Twenge points out, marriages don’t dissolve because people love themselves too little. They dissolve because people love themselves too much and others not enough.

Says Ablow, “The bubble of narcissism is always at risk of bursting. That’s why young people are higher on drugs than ever, drunker than ever, smoking more, tattooed more, pierced more and having more and more and more sex, earlier and earlier and earlier, raising babies before they can do it well, because it makes them feel special, for a while. They’re doing anything to distract themselves from the fact that they feel empty inside and unworthy.”

I hope Ablow is exaggerating a little, because the picture he paints is downright depressing, and he wasn’t even finished. He goes on to say, “Distractions, however, are temporary, and the truth is eternal. Watch for an epidemic of depression and suicidality, not to mention homicidality, as the real self-loathing and hatred of others that lies beneath all this narcissism rises to the surface.  I see it happening and, no doubt, many of you do, too.”

Ablow warns that we better come up with a plan to turn the tide before it’s too late, and I wonder what he has in mind. As for me and mine, I’m opting for some straight talk and a whole lot of prayer.

What do you think? Are our young people too self-focused? And if so, what do you see as the cure?

Saturday, February 16, 2013

Letter To a Former Manager

In thinking back over my years in the workplace, I count at least twenty-one managers. This, despite working seventeen years with one company and despite not counting the President of my last employer, to whom I reported with a dotted line.

Some of these managers were really wonderful. They were very knowledgeable, trusting, and deserving of trust. They were patient, level-headed, gifted teachers, and concerned about me as a person. These are Bea, Rose, Anne, Donna, and June among others. I’m certain I’ll have a degree of gratitude to these managers as long as I live.

And … no surprise, I’ve had my share of not-so-wonderful managers. Most people have, I’m sure. 

Have you ever wanted to tell one of these not-so-wonderful bosses exactly what you think of her managerial skills? Yes? Well, I can help with that! You say I've never met your former not-so-wonderful boss? I have, trust me.

Here then is my letter to one of your awful ex-bosses.

Dear You:

I must admit that I’ve grown to dislike you very much in the past few months. You are self-centered. You are selfish. You’re not very good at your job, and watching you scramble to protect your rear (which often involves throwing others under the bus) is painful. You willfully ignore problems and apparently think it’s okay for managers to demean, scream at, and otherwise disrespect their employees.

You like to waste my time, and it’s irritating. Yes, I know I’m being paid to do what you say, but did I really need to spend two hours preparing a self-evaluation that you never read and never referenced in your own (months late) crappy review of my performance, which, by the way, though flattering, showcased your complete ignorance of my job responsibilities, my abilities, my motivations, and my value?

You think your forgetfulness, lack of focus, and general disorganization is adorable, and we should join you in laughing at how “you” you are. Well, I’m not laughing. It’s not cute to be repeatedly late to meetings. It’s irresponsible and discourteous. Having to update you two, three, and sometimes four times because you don’t listen (although you’re the one who asked the question) is a pain in the rear. For crying out loud, if you’re not going to remember something, write it down!

You demand a lot but give very little. That is, very little guidance and very little support. Actually, I don’t need your guidance—you don’t know how I should be doing my job anyway—but I could use your support sometimes. But, I guess that’s asking for too much.

In short, you are one lousy boss.

Surprisingly, all this would be tolerable if you were to express any real interest in my well being, but instead it’s all about you. Oh, you give good lip service, but in the end, it’s what you need, what you want, and your priorities. Well, news flash. I’m a human being existing independently of you, and I have career aspirations, family responsibilities, and needs and wants too. Frankly, I’m sick of pretending I don’t so you’ll be comfortable and not have to concern yourself with my “stuff,” as though I haven’t been dealing with your “stuff” forever.

So, I’ve moved on. You’re fired, and I’m gone!

You’re welcome.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Slippery Slope


I saw a news report the other day about Thomas Langenbach, the Vice President who was arrested and charged with four felony counts of burglary for stealing Legos at various Target stores. In a “barcode scam,” Langenbach placed homemade labels over the real labels, which enabled him to purchase the Legos for much less than the actual price. He then sold the Legos on eBay, earning nearly $30,000, according to the Mountain View police department. Apparently, anyone can make barcode labels fairly easily using Microsoft Excel software.

During a search of Langebach’s home, police found piles of fake price tags and several boxes of unopened Legos.

When asked by a reporter why a “highly paid executive would steal Legos,” Langenbach had no comment, and he’s pleaded “not guilty” to the charges.

Seeing as Langebach was recorded on three separate store cameras and considering the evidence police found in his home, I’m curious to know what his defense will be. But perhaps it will go along these lines—Langenbach didn’t steal anything. He bought the Legos boxes to the cashier, and the cashier totaled the boxes and told Langenbach how much to pay. Langenbach paid it. End of story. In any case, this is the opinion offered by commenter "Tony" on, a blog about security and security technology.

While there’s a certain logic to this argument, come on

I’m reminded of Anthony Armatys, who pleaded guilty to second-degree theft after it was discovered that close to $480,000 had been mistakenly deposited into Armatys’ bank and retirement accounts. Armatys had been hired by a company and subsequently filled out the necessary paperwork for HR and payroll. At the last minute, however, Armatys decided not to accept the position. His information was deleted from the HR system (go HR!) but not the company’s payroll system. Five years later, the company discovered the error and began investigating. (Damn, company! Five years later! What gives?)

The prosecutor said that Armatys used the money as “regular disposal income” (as opposed to donating it all to charity or something, I don’t know), which I assume he thought was a bad thing. At the time of the trial, Armatys faced prison time and orders to repay the money. 

So I’m thinking, if this guy had no defense, then Langenbach surely doesn’t. I mean, yes, Armatys had to know that he hadn’t earned the money, but it’s not like he filled out fake timesheets to get it. The company screwed up big time, and I assume that some payroll clerk somewhere had a really bad day when all this came to light. 

But back to Langenbach. Phil Peretz, President of Nationwide Barcode, says that newer technology is making this type of fraud more difficult for thieves, but the technology is expensive. He advises business owners that the best defense is—guess what? Employee training. That’s right. 

As an HR professional, this delights me. Invest in your people, managers. Teach them that if the box of Legos sold five minutes ago, or heck yesterday, to Customer X now costs three times less for Customer Y, something fishy is going on. Three cheers for critical thinking skills! Yay!

What do you think? Is Langenbach guilty?

Thursday, February 14, 2013


I’m reading a book by the teenage daughter of a good friend of mine, and I’m hooked.

I do like young adult fiction—these books take me back to those days when I was a kid and a regular bookworm, so much so that when I got my new library card and was allowed to borrow three books, I was scolded by the librarian for returning each day for my “new three.” On day three or four she said, “You’re going to have to read these books more slowly. You’re not supposed to borrow three books every day. Could you please wait until your card is processed before coming back?” Imagine, a librarian making a child feel guilty for reading too much.

But I digress.

I started reading this particular book because I’ll be interviewing the author for Musings, but like I said, I’m now hooked. (Such a talented young lady!) I won’t divulge the title of the book or the author’s name until the interview is posted, but I do want to discuss one line in the story that caught my eye.

The protagonist, a twelve-year-old girl, has just crashed into the wall of an ice skating rink after seeing her boyfriend kissing another girl, and she’s lying on the ground with a broken arm, in pain. It’s humiliating and overwhelming, and she starts to cry. She tells her friend, “I’m such a wuss for crying,” but her friend disagrees and says, “It’s always okay to cry when something hurts.”

Ah, the simplistic wisdom of youth! This statement makes perfect sense, but it got me thinking about the one place where it most assuredly is not okay to cry, no matter your pain, and that’s the workplace.

In the workplace, “big girls better not cry” or they’ll be labeled weak, “emotional,” and “too sensitive.” But at the same time, a man can raise his voice, curse, throw things (oh yes, I’ve seen it), and make the dumbest of decisions based not on business best practices, but on his own personal interests.

Well, allow me to clarify. A man of a certain rank can raise his voice, curse, and so on without facing the same disapproval a women would. And while in some ways this makes sense, with “membership having its privileges” and all that, in another way it makes no sense, because the more important your function, the more impact your decisions will have on the organization. So if Joe Schmo in Accounting rudely raises his voice to his coworker it’s bad, but when a senior leader raises his voice to one of his managers during a staff meeting, it’s terrible and has the potential to not just affect the manager in question but other employees working for the managers who are looking to the leader for what behavior to model.

But I’m not simply criticizing the men here. I’m “hating the game, not the player.” (And I don’t particularly care if no one still says that, it’s a fine phrase and expresses my thoughts perfectly.) Because the game is hypocritical and not that great for business. Everyone should be exercising a measure of self-control in the workplace and no one should be yelling, cursing at colleagues (or clients for that matter), throwing objects around, or unilaterally making the poorest of decisions based on his emotional attachments or her need to have her ego stroked.

Sigh. Life sure was simpler when I was twelve. 

Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Morning Is Coming

Tonight I attended an Ash Wednesday service for the first time in I don’t know how long. I’m a regular church goer, but I’ve never paid a whole lot of attention to Ash Wednesday. However, today was different, because my brother and two of his fellow seminary students were preaching during the service, and of course I had to go and support my brother.

All of the preaching was a blessing (and as an added little something, one of the other students was actually a preacher I’ve known for years but hadn’t seen in a while—I had no idea he and my brother were in the same class), but the sermon that resonated with me the most was titled “Morning Is Coming!” This was not the sermon my brother gave, but I think he will forgive me, because I’ve a feeling this sermon resonated with him as well.

The sermon text was Lamentations 3:19-24, with a focus on verses 22-24: “The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For his compassions never fail/They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness.” The themes of course was—adversity will come, but it won’t last. Morning is coming.

Now, there’s nothing particularly earth-shattering about this theme, especially to a mature believer. But, I’ve found over the years that sometimes the most basic messages are the ones we need to hear over and over and over again. Because I don’t know about you, but I’ve had some trials in my life, and when you’ve hit the eye of the storm, or what you might call the peak of the trial, that place where you’re feeling especially alone and unloved and unliked even, and you’re wondering why stuff is happening like it is, because it really hurts, and you just want it to stop—at times like these, it is good to be reminded that this too shall pass. And not because “time heals all wounds” as they say, but because God is alive and doing something marvelous and purposeful and edifying, and before too long, you’ll get a hint of what that might be, or to put it another way, “Weeping may last for the night/But a shout of joy comes in the morning” (Psalm 30:5) And oh, by the time this line was preached tonight, people, including my brother, were on their feet.

This is such a simple message, but one filled with much-needed hope and love. 

The bad stuff only lasts for a season, and just you wait, morning is coming.

Tuesday, February 12, 2013

It Sucks To Be Poor

I was telling my brother a story about Adam involving a relatively benign school incident that had nonetheless left an impression.

Here’s the story. Adam enters the university cafeteria, and it’s crowded. So, after spying a table, he leaves his jacket and hat as “place holders” while going to get his meal. When he returns to the table, two white female students are already seated, and they’ve pushed Adam’s belongings aside. One of the girls looks up at Adam with a defiant expression and says “Oh,” then turns back to her friend, resuming their conversation and dismissing Adam.

So Adam’s a little nonplussed. But he’s a gentleman. He’s not going to cause a fuss because these girls pushed his stuff aside. However, he’s not happy at being dismissed. At the very least, he expected one of the girls to say, “Oh! We’re sorry, we didn’t know you were sitting here,” and smile, even if the smile is disingenuous or an obvious ploy to charm. I think (and this is just me reflecting after the fact) that Adam was miffed that the girl didn’t deem him worthy of putting on the charm, not because that signified anything about his masculinity but because it (perhaps) signified something (at least to her) about his lack of person-hood.

Now you’re saying—what does all this have to do with poor people? And, I’m getting there. Promise.

So, I tell my brother the story, and I say I think Adam wondered whether he was dismissed because of his race, and my brother replies “Hmmm… my immediate thought was that this was a class issue.” Adam attends a small, private university with a lot of rich kids.

I say, “What? They’re all college students! Everyone dresses alike. You can’t tell who has money.”

And then my brother says, “Well, Adam doesn’t look like a rich kid.” And my brother's comment disturbed me, but I didn’t know why.

So I thought about it for a while (off and on for days really), and I came to the conclusion that I simply did not want my son to be thought of as poor, because poor people aren’t treated very well, and there are definite stigmas to being seen as poor. There’s most certainly a shame in not having, of being unable to purchase. If you don’t have, you are deficient. You must be lazy, or stupid, possessing of a really lousy work ethic, or in disfavor with God. And if you’re a child, and you don’t have, your parents are to be criticized, because they have been unable to provide for you, and surely it’s because they are lazy or stupid.

And so, as crazy as this is going to sound, when I contemplated, for just a moment, that my son had been slighted because of, in a roundabout way, my perceived failure to provide, well, I felt ashamed, as though I’d let him down somehow. And all of this is nuts, and some of it is mine to own, having been raised in a poor household and still carrying that around with me. But some of it is out there in the world, and it comes out in political speeches about “some people” just wanting “free stuff,” conversations about bad kids in urban schools who need to adopt “middle-class values,” and off-handed comments about “those people” who are trifling and lazy and that’s why their neighborhoods look like shit.

And, yes, there are plenty of poor people who don’t have anything because they don’t work for anything. But there are plenty of people of means for whom society completely discounts the role that legacy and luck and help has played in their good fortunes. And somehow, it’s okay to be rich and lazy, but it’s a serious moral failing to be poor and lazy, as though merely having makes you a better person.

So, no I don’t want my son perceived as poor, although there’s not much I can do about it, except wonder about a world that places such emphasis on having and challenge myself to reject that thinking, every once in a while.