| |One of my favorite things to do on Sunday morning is read the "Corner Office" feature in the Business section of The New York Times. Every week, a different corporate leader is asked a series of questions relating to her or his management philosophy. The responses are insightful and well-considered, and with rare exception, the executives cite personal work experiences which have informed their points of view.
I'm a better behind-the-scenes person than a leader myself, but having spent 26 years with the postal service under managers ranging from A+ to Abysmal on the effectiveness scale, I've given a lot of thought to what qualities make a good workplace leader. "Corner Office" has offered me some new perspectives. But it also could be that I'm so enthusiastic about the feature because so many of the great ideas I read there reinforce and validate my own opinions about what it takes to be a successful manager.
So, Sunday after Sunday, Owners and Presidents and CEOs sit with me at my dining room table and tell me about how they run their worlds. These are the exceptional parents of their industries, paying keen attention to their employees' needs, listening to their concerns, encouraging openness in the sharing and discussion of ideas. Theirs is a position of command, tempered by reason and fairness and compassion. These are the leaders who will be shaping corporate culture for years to come.
Or it would seem. With all this love drizzling down from the top, are the workers at the bottom of the cake feeling content? A while back, one of my physicians, whose practice consists entirely of women, told me that she routinely asks her patients how their worklives are going. My doctor told me that in the prior 2 1/2 years, only one of her patients had responded favorably to the query. And that was a woman in her early twenties who worked primarily with young children. Of course this was definitely a most unscientific survey. But it had me wondering, so I poked around a bit to see what workers are thinking about their jobs these days. A recent CareerBuilder survey has 67% of transportation and utility workers expressing satisfaction with their jobs. The number drops to 48% for retail employees. If you're a half-full kind a person, perhaps 1-in-2 or 2-in-3 are comely figures. But I'd give my nod to half-emptiness on this one. If a half or even two-thirds of workers are content, that still leaves a large percentage of employees feeling out on the edge.
I'm not naïve. The jewel of happiness contains many facets, and I'm not here to discuss all the cuts and bevels. But I'm thinking of these leaders whose words I've read, their top hats a-sparkle with good ideas. If those ideas were implemented from top to bottom, I believe they'd go a long way toward increasing employee satisfaction. There appears to be a gap between upper management's ideals and how those ideals translate to the workers in the field. So where's the disconnect? A clue comes to me from my mother, her ghost-words tagging after me all these years. I always thought the buck stopped with her, but perhaps she was merely a middle-manager herself, forever negotiating the distance between the realities of the larger world and the imperatives of bringing up children within it. I can still hear her voice today: Don't do as I do, just do as I say.
I don't watch "Mad Men." (I couldn't even make it through the first episode. I thought it was boring, not to mention that all the cigarette smoke gave my phantosmia fits.)
Elisabeth Donnelly does watch "Mad Men." And she wrote about it on the back page of The New York Times Magazine a few weeks ago. Donnelly couldn't understand why her mother, who had experienced the early 1960s first-hand, found the show "painful."
Flash forward to Adam Gopnik, writing in The New Yorker last week. Gopnik talked about something he named the "Golden Forty-Year Rule," which suggests that the prime site for nostalgia is the forty-to-fifty-year period prior to the present time. During the 1940s, the aughts were the bee's knees. The 70s were in love with the 30s. Following that pattern, it comes as no surprise that culturally we're smitten with the 1960s.
Gopnik has a interesting theory on the reasons behind his rule, mostly having to do with who it is that actually controls the creation of pop culture. And then he leaps forward to four decades hence and considers how the 2010s will look when viewed through the lens of the forty-year future.
For the 1960s, Donnelly is that future. But confronted with a TV show and the first-person reflections of her own mother, Donnelly tips toward the media view. She's a reluctant believer in the realities of that era as expressed by someone who lived through the time.
All this leaping forward and looking back had me thinking this week: No one owns the final word on what a decade was really like. Even the past five minutes can be questioned: ask anyone who's witnessed a traffic accident what it was that actually happened. The future will collect the bits and pieces we leave behind and create the narrative as it will. All we can do is toss and scatter the best of ourselves, then settle back with our remotes and hope we'll be able to enjoy the show.
| |I'm missing a sock.
It happened yesterday after Kobi, my cat, had his way with my sock drawer. When I was finished re-pairing the un-paired, I was left with one extra sock. (Or left with one missing sock, for you fans of negative space.) What happened to the other one?
Yeah, yeah. We all know the mystery of . . .
But I'm not here, really, to talk about socks.
I'm here for the mystery. The maddening world of the unsolved mystery.
For instance: How did the the container of cottage cheese find its way to the bookshelf in the office? Where went the e-mail never received, the one I spent at least 40 minutes writing but now I can't find in any of my folders? The asparagus fern, robust and content, all those years in the pot by the door? What made it die and flame orange overnight? And that package I waited for all day at home? Had it really been sitting on the porch the whole time?
Whenever anything inexplicable happens, I consider myself the first and prime suspect. Failure appears as the common denominator, and I've always assumed that failure to be mine. I'm an expert with the whip and paddle.
I worked for the post office for 26 years. Once, when I was a new letter carrier, I was offered a fast and tidy lesson. I'd finished walking one of my loops, delivering mail into boxes and picking up the patrons' outgoing pieces. When I returned to the truck, I tossed the letters I'd collected into a plastic tub. I was rearranging my cargo, moving that container to a different location, when a sudden gust of wind lifted the top letter right out of the tub. It was a utility payment—I recognized the characteristic brown markings on the envelope—and I watched the envelope lift with the wind and cartwheel right into the pocket of the truck's sliding panel door. In the space of a second, the letter was gone. Had I not been watching, I would never have known what had happened. I would never have known to return to the office and report the the errant payment to the maintenance crew so they could extract it from that impossible and improbable spot.
Had this situation not been resolved, I'm certain that the person who'd mailed the letter would have wondered why that payment never arrived. And of all the scenarios she or he might have imagined, surely the real story would not have been among them. The fact of what happened was a simple thing. But the truth was in the act, not in the imagining.
I've wasted a lot of time blaming myself for things unexplained. But I can't possibly be at fault for (all of) the mysteries in my world. The fact of my imagining something doesn't necessarily make it true. I need to accept the lesson of that letter: there are answers I will never have; some mysteries just can't be solved.
Hey! What's this sock doing on my keyboard?
As I arrived home from my walk this morning, I watched a starling* struggle an earthworm from the grass in front of my house. A pull, some tug and stretch, another long pull and then thwiiing. The worm was yanked free, and the bird flew off, wiggly cargo like a slick moustache dangling from its beak.
Ah, spring. Each dewy morning a clamor of miracle and horror: the baby starlings will eat; one snap, and the earthworm's work is abruptly done.
I'm content, mostly, to let the drama play out: natural order and all that. Plus the fact that some things are just too hard to think about.
Until we're made to think about them. Such as happened last year around this time, when several seasons of chronic refusal to deal with the starlings nesting in the attic eaves forced me to play a role in a very unnatural order.
It started with the scritching sounds on the roof. Followed by a metallic thunk-clang near the bathroom vent. Soon thereafter, skitter and scramble in the attic and finally, a sound like an erratic drill outside the window. I had no choice but to look. And there was the squirrel. Looking back at me through the escape hole he was chewing through the eave.
For the starlings, whose babies' peeps I could hear just above a closet ceiling, I'd managed to invent a tidy narrative. For the squirrel chewing so obviously through the house, I couldn't afford the sentiment of story. So phone calls were made. Questions were asked. More phone calls were made. And at last arrived two trucks with two men, several ladders, many cages and an assortment of bait. An inspection was conducted: gaps in the rooflines were allowing access for the squirrels. As for those starlings: they hadn't been nesting in the eaves; they were inside the attic itself. They all had to go. A plan was laid out. And executed.
The details don't much matter now. The squirrels are gone. The starlings and their fledglings are gone.This morning's bird carried its worm to someone else's roof. And here I sit, still re-imagining the narrative. Surely the trapped squirrels were released from the cages into some faraway, unnamed woods. Surely those babies had already fledged by the time the swaddling wads of twigs and straw were extracted from the recesses. Surely next time I'll pick up the phone, make the right call in the safety of the off-season. Surely, surely.
| |This week, Baylor University women's basketball head coach, Kim Mulkey, arrived in Denver for the NCAA Final Four with an unexpected companion: a broken face.
Mulkey's suffering from Bell's Palsy, a temporary paralysis of the facial muscles which can have long-term effects if not treated early. Also, it's scary as hell.
I know. I've had it. One morning several years ago I was brushing my teeth, getting ready for work, when something felt very wrong in my mouth. It was as if the entire mechanism was out of alignment, all the squishy oral parts slightly off kilter, not working together as they should.
I chalked it up to my half-awake condition. It was 3:00 in the morning, and I was operating on autopilot after years of working an early shift. Still, my cheeks were acting oddly, and when I offered the tube of Chapstick to my lips, well, they couldn't quite figure out what to do with it.
I started playing tricks with my face: clown smiles, scrunchy noses, up-and-down eyebrows, jawbone shimmy side-to-side. Everything seemed a bit out of whack, off somehow by a few degrees. When I smiled, the right side of my mouth felt as if it would just keep going, that it would manage to fly right off my face. What was wrong?
And then I realized I'd been focusing on the incorrect side! The right half was winging out of control because its partner on the left was just sitting there, inert, like a kid defeated by a homework problem. I'd been paying attention to all the things my face was doing and not to what it wasn't doing. The right side was taking flight, and the left wasn't doing a jot to stop it.
I went to work.* It was 4:00 a.m., and by the time I got to the doctor's office at 10:00, the left side of my face had melted like a Dali clock.
And one of the best things that's ever happened to me.
In the span of six hours, I went from a person who could slip blissfully unnoticed through her day to the object of neck-snap and double-take. The teller at the bank turned quickly away, then glanced back up at me again. The grocery checker cocked her head, her brain trying to register what her eyes were seeing. An unexpected encounter with an acquaintance brought the relief of candor: What happened to you? she asked.
I pouted for a day over my sorry plight: the eyelid that could not blink, needing tape to keep it closed at night and a hand to operate it during the day; the tongue that no longer knew how to hold things in my mouth; the jaw-sag and drool; the lax and broken face. And then the word came bubbling into my consciousness: temporary. Temporary. As in: of short duration. As in: not permanent.
The worst was over in a couple of weeks. Recovery took, oh, 10 more beyond that. A hint of the paralysis lingers, but it's no bigger deal than the scar on my palm, souvenir of a bee sting I got when I was five. What a gift I was given, this view of the world from the interior of disfigurement. And what luxury it was, to know the condition would not last.
The forward-focused Mulkey isn't going to let a little palsy keep her from coaching her team to a national championship. "This is just a little bump in the road. I can assure you the spit that will fly out of my face in a timeout won't faze them . . . It aggravates me, but there are worse things in life. And you just deal with it."
*This is exactly the sort of stupid thing I'm capable of, but that's another blog for another time.