Essay, Stories Told

This cup is already broken

This was my favorite mug.

mymug

A long time ago I worked in a museum’s gift shop. We sold works of local artists and for several weeks featured a talented potter. I was taken with this fellow’s work for its bold color, especially four coffee mugs in this motif. I wanted them all, but could afford only one, and chose this one.

This mug was as much a pleasure to use as it was to behold. Its slender angled lip felt good on my lips. The thumbprint-sized indentation pressed into the top of the handle made it very comfortable to hold.

I’ve had very few possessions that satisfied me as much as this mug. I drank my coffee from it for 21 years, first at college, then in my first apartment, then at home after I was married, and finally at work. But sadly it was damaged when I moved it to my last job. Something must have struck the box it was in. When I filled it with coffee, a puddle quickly formed wherever I set it.

Buddhists have a saying: This cup is already broken. It’s meant to teach us that nothing lasts forever, so enjoy it while you have it. (The book of Ecclesiastes agrees, by the way, if you aren’t too keen on Buddhist teachings.) Enjoying what I have has been a recurring theme on this blog. For example, I’ve written before about how I was so focused on taking care of my first brand new car that it robbed me of some of the pleasure of driving it. I have struggled with this lesson all my life.

I grew up in a working-class family. We weren’t poor, but we earned every thing we owned, and little was handed to me. I saved to buy things I wanted, such as my bicycle and my first old cameras. Every purchase was dear because my money didn’t stretch very far. I was always very upset when something broke or wore out, because I would have to save for a long time to replace it. This shaped my attitude toward my possessions. I have tended to buy used or inexpensive things, because when they broke or wore out I could soothe myself by saying that I hadn’t lost much. When I have received especially nice or new things, I have tended not to want to use them.

After my grandfather died, I got his pocket knife. It was a gentleman’s knife, two small blades in a slender silver body. I left it in a dresser drawer for years, afraid to carry it lest I lose it. But I couldn’t very well enjoy my grandfather’s memory that way, and so one morning I finally slipped it into my pocket. When I got home that night, I found that it had fallen out somewhere along the way, and I never saw it again.

That loss stung. In its wake I clenched even tighter on my possessions. That brings me to this mug. Because at about this time I realized I drank far more coffee at work than at home. I wanted to take my mug to the office, but I resisted out of worry that it would more readily be lost, damaged, or stolen there.

About 15 years ago I needed to sell almost everything I owned. That was super hard. Yet after it was all gone and I carried on with my life, I was surprised by how little of it I missed. Today, I occasionally wish for a couple old cameras I especially enjoyed and a few of my old record albums that have never been released on CD. That’s it. I can’t even remember some of the things I owned. It was, I am stunned to have learned, just stuff.

That my mug survived was merely an oversight, but one I was glad to have made. As soon as I came across it, I took it right to work where I could enjoy it best. And sure enough, that’s where my mug met its demise. But I got to use it for seven years at work before that happened – and in that time, I figure I drank at least 3,600 cups of coffee from it. I enjoyed it to the hilt!

And so I’ve been thinking about how to extend this idea. How will I behave differently if I think as though my kids are already grown and gone? As though I’ve already moved on from my current job? As though I’ve already remarried and left my single life behind?

What else can you think of?

Originally published in May of 2010. Back by popular demand. And since I wrote this, I’m almost empty nested, I’ve moved on from two jobs, and I’ve remarried. This long-ago reflection absolutely helped me enjoy my fleeting, temporary life more.

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Essay

Stuck on Facebook

I know someone who used to not only work at Facebook, but was in a position where she regularly spoke with founder Mark Zuckerberg. She frequently posted images and stories from within Facebook’s offices. I saw an energizing place to work and a company on a positive mission.

Being on Facebook was fun in those days. It’s not anymore, except for rare occasions when it is. As I’ve written before (here) this is like the abusive spouse who’s nice to you just often enough that you think maybe it’ll be different now and you stay.

Amid the ever growing negative news about Facebook — how they gather and sell information about you, their monopolistic practices — I think they’ve lost their way, if indeed they ever had it. I want to walk away. I don’t want to support them anymore.

Sites that drove traffic to my blog the week of Jan. 28 – notice what is #2

Yet I stay, because at the moment it is the best platform available to me for promoting not only this blog, but also the Michigan Road Historic Byway and also my church. I post on behalf of all three on Facebook and it drives more engagement and traffic than anything else I do. It’s not a life-changing amount, but without it my stats would be far, far lower.

I’m also over Instagram, because it’s a Facebook company and because literally every third post is an ad now. I’m especially frustrated with that because Facebook knows my search history and has figured out I’m looking for comfortable shoes thanks to my bum left foot, and keeps showing me lovely orthotically correct shoes and I keep clicking through because foot pain sucks. I hate it that I’m falling for this.

But I promote the Michigan Road Historic Byway there, and new posts there automatically post on Facebook too. This drives more engagement with our byway than anything else we’ve tried. It’s not an overwhelming amount, but we hate to leave it behind.

I seldom look at what my “Facebook friends” are up to anymore. I’ve hidden all the friends who post mostly political stuff, even when I agree with their politics. I’ve also hidden the friends who post mostly memes and share articles. That leaves little to see.

But in the last couple years Facebook’s groups have become a welcome replacement for the forums I used to frequent, about the kinds of arcane and esoteric topics I enjoy — old roads, neon signs, obscure cameras, and more. The Indiana Transportation History group is flat out amazing for the information its founder unearths in his research. I don’t want to leave that behind.

I keep thinking I ought to quit it all. But I hold my nose and stay.

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Essay, Old Cars

Buy a fun car while you’re young

1968 Chevrolet El Camino b

When I was a kid, my dad wanted a Chevy El Camino. I mean, really really wanted. He imagined himself driving in carlike comfort while being able to haul lumber and other large items with ease in its bed. He was so hot to own one that he tried to convince my mom that our family of four would fit just fine shoulder to shoulder across the front seat. 

Mom wasn’t having it. Thank goodness, because the four of us shoulder-tight on that bench seat did not sound like fun to me. But I feel bad for my dad that he never got his El Camino.

As Dad aged, that spark for fun motoring left him. I think that’s natural for anyone who didn’t get to sow those oats when they were younger — he never knew the joy of the fun car and so those synapses never formed in his brain. By his middle age he declared that his cars were meant only to get him from A to B.

BMW 3-series coupe

I’m in the middle of making the same mistake. When I was young I wanted a 3-series BMW coupe. Really really wanted one. But I never felt like I should extend myself financially to buy even a well-used one. I could have, but I always played it safe with my money.

I regret it. While it’s important to be good stewards of our finances, it’s also important to seek good, fun experiences in life.

I’ve already told my wife that after the kids are done with college I’d like to buy a fun car. I’ve lost my BMW lust in middle age, so I don’t know yet what that car will be except that it’ll be older and will not be my daily driver. Whatever I choose, it’ll be our road-trip car and we will make memories together in it.

This one’s for my dad, who would have been 78 today.

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Essay

Hiring managers and recruiters: tell the candidates you didn’t select that they didn’t get the job

As I start my new job today I am going to vent a little about how few companies got back to me after any conversation about, or even my application for, a position they had available.

Closed

There was one shining exception, a small and privately held software company. My interviewers there included the CEO, who is from a prominent family in my city. He called me a few days after our interview. “I’m sorry to say that you are our number two candidate,” he began. “I’m sure this is not the news you want to hear. But I’m calling you personally to say that you impressed us all. It’s just that the fellow we hired has direct experience building integrations to a couple of our customers’ systems, and we need that in the short term much more than we need leadership like you offer. It was a tough call. But I can imagine all sorts of places I could plug you in later, if you’re open to me calling you back when the time is right. And now you have my personal number, so if you ever think I can help you with anything, please call me.”

What a class act. A quick email would have done the job but this CEO didn’t lose the opportunity to make a fan out of me.

The only other company to officially tell me “thanks, but no thanks” was a mid-sized medical services company with a large internal software-development team. Seven weeks after my interview their recruiter emailed me to say they had chosen another candidate. He admitted that the holidays had delayed their decision process, at least.

No outlet

A colleague referred me for a job at his company. He and I and the hiring manager all worked together at the same company several years ago. I thought the interview went great and I was excited about the opportunity. But then I heard nothing for a few weeks. I reached out. The manager said that he was pursuing a couple other candidates but that I wasn’t out of the running. I never heard back from him or his recruiter again. It’s been almost two months since then. Certainly they chose one of the other candidates.

No other company with which I had interviews followed up with me at all.

I applied to a dozen or so jobs where I did not get an interview. Only one communicated with me at all about my status as a candidate.

I could have followed up with these companies myself. But one company made an offer, a good one. As I tried to read the tea leaves of my active opportunities I could see nobody else was going to offer me anything better before my family’s finances got rough. I accepted and moved on.

Wash out

I’m not upset that I wasn’t chosen for the other jobs. Every job search involves hearing “no thanks” a number of times before hearing “you’re hired.” Even though I know I could have done well in each job for which I interviewed, there could have been candidates in the running that offered something valuable that I didn’t.

But I wanted to hear the “no thanks” and have the loop closed. I hated having so many balls in the air. It would have let me move on cleanly as I continued to pursue other opportunities. And, daggone it, it’s just professional to do so.

From now on, whenever I fill a position on a team I lead, I will either personally write the “thanks, but no thanks” notes, or confirm that my recruiter did.

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Essay

I shed no tears for Amazon’s white-collar workers — but its blue-collar workers deserve better

Some companies are just hard to work for. Amazon appears to be one of them. I shed no tears for its white-collar workers, but in many cases its blue-collar workers deserve better.

The big online retailer’s corporate culture has been in the news a lot lately after a damning article in the New York Times lambasted the company for unrelenting pace and pressure at its Seattle headquarters. It told stories of ridiculously long hours, of scoldings for midnight emails not immediately answered, of employees undermining each other using an anonymous feedback system, of a brutal annual performance rating system that ends in firing those ranked at the bottom even when the ratings are good, of grown men routinely crying in their offices.

The article smells like a hit piece to me. I wonder what axe the Times or the reporters have to grind. Indeed, people inside Amazon are calling the piece largely bunk, including this employee who tore the article apart piece by piece.

Largely bunk, though, because nobody denies that Amazon is an intensely demanding workplace that wants to attract and keep overachieving A players. Anyone who can’t hack it isn’t coddled — they leave, voluntarily or not.

Plenty of people thrive in such an environment. Plenty of people don’t. And for those who don’t, they all have skills and talents that transfer easily to other companies with cultures that fit them better. Plenty of companies are available for them to choose from. And that’s why I don’t cry for the workers at Amazon headquarters. They have good options.

Inside Amazon's Whitestown, Indiana warehouse. WRTV photo.

Inside Amazon’s Whitestown, Indiana, warehouse. WRTV photo.

But Amazon’s blue-collar workers have far fewer options, and many of those options are poor. Some stories of conditions inside Amazon’s many warehouses enrage me. One warehouse turned off the air conditioning in the summertime and sent the prostrated to the ER. They wouldn’t even open the warehouse doors to vent the heat, to prevent theft. Worries about theft also lead Amazon warehouses to make employees wait for up to 25 unpaid minutes at quitting time to go through a security check. Lawsuits followed. They went all the way to the Supreme Court, which validated the practice, unfortunately.

Even when Amazon warehouse workers avoid dangerous conditions, the warehouse is still far from a joyful place to work. I know someone who worked the last holiday season at the Amazon warehouse in nearby Whitestown, Indiana, and he complained of a deeply intense, almost impossible pace that left his feet aching. But, he added, for anyone who doesn’t like it there, five more people are waiting in line for the job. Few other viable employers are available for these workers.

Low-skill blue-collar workers do have options — they’re just enormously difficult. I think about my dad’s family in West Virginia’s hill country. Coal mining provides most of the employment, and it’s all dangerous work. Worker abuses used to be very common; even during my father’s childhood there, “I owe my soul to the company store” was real. But many in my family found deep courage and took big risks to find a better life. My great grandmother opened a tavern and boardinghouse in a little town where the railroad loaded the coal. It was a bold move for a woman in those years, but my great grandmother had guts (and was a deadly shot). And many of my family moved to northern Indiana in the 1950s to find safer, surer work in construction and manufacturing. That was not done lightly — West Virginians are fiercely dedicated to family togetherness.

Indeed, half my family still lives in West Virginia in or not far from that railroad town, and many of those who choose to work still go down into the dangerous mines. Other jobs are very hard to come by, even though Amazon does have a warehouse up the road in Huntington. This surprises me given how hard those hills are to navigate — this isn’t prime factory or warehouse territory.

I applaud anyone at this end of the worker spectrum who takes good risks to find a better life. But not everybody succeeds, and not everybody can do it. At some point, it becomes necessary to protect blue-collar workers from workplace abuses, simply because some number of them will have no options and can be terribly exploited. It reminds me of turn-of-the-20th-century stories about six day, sixty hour weeks, and about child labor, and about poverty-level wages, because the employers could get away with it. Federal labor law and labor unions ended up solving those problems. I’m no fan of government intervention and I deplore what labor unions have turned into. Yet I do think that working people with limited options deserve some protection, some guarantee of humane working conditions.

White-collar workers are much more likely to have good options; many of them can get another job in the same field near where they live. If any of the abuses in the New York Times article are true, I deplore them. But a software developer or a marketing specialist at Amazon headquarters can quit, and soon find other programming or marketing jobs right there in Seattle. A departing Amazon warehouse worker in Whitestown, however, is much more likely to face long unemployment and an uncertain future.

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Essay

Why local news is no longer appointment TV for me

The drunk police officer plowed his squad car into two motorcycles stopped at a red light. One rider was killed; two others were injured. A bungled and compromised investigation, continued bad behavior by the officer, and the slow wheels of justice kept this story at the top of the news for three years. At last, the officer was convicted of drunk driving, criminal recklessness, and reckless homicide.

wrtv_cap

WRTV photo

On the day of the verdict, I turned to local television news for the story. I hoped for reporting and analysis that would help me understand the conviction in the context of the investigation and the trial. Instead, the station I chose led with — and heavily promoted — the emotional reaction of one dead rider’s mother as the verdict was read.

Then the newscast cut to an early weather report, and made no more mention of a top local story of this decade.

It’s not like most viewers didn’t know of this story, which was heavily reported over the three years between accident and conviction. But there was so much more to tell that evening: to recount the story’s timeline, to summarize the trial, to connect the dots that led to the guilty verdict, and to share the day’s courtroom drama. The mother’s tears were rightly part of that story. But they were not the story.

To be fair: a good television news program shows the news as much as it tells it. Without action video, all that’s left is talking heads. When I was a boy 40 years ago, local TV news was balding men in gray suits, sitting at a desk, droning on about city-council meetings. Yecch; who wants to watch that? Unless those council members were throwing punches at each other, there was nothing to see.

Also, many stories would benefit from explanation and analysis that television doesn’t have time for. Even if it did, television news is by its nature a short-attention-span theater. People watch the news while living their lives: getting ready for work, sending kids off to school, making dinner.

But even within these realities, an average TV newscast was once a good enough summary of a day’s events. I don’t find that to be true anymore. Instead, I find TV news trying to keep me on the hook by driving strong emotions.

I’m no industry insider, but here’s what I think is going on. Thanks to hundred-channel cable and the Internet, viewers have more choices and any single news outlet has to compete harder than ever for viewers. Younger viewers favor these other choices so overwhelmingly that the TV newscast viewer’s average age has risen sharply away from the younger viewers advertisers want — and the remaining audience that remains. And the large corporations that own most television stations today have shareholders to please and/or enormous debt loads to shoulder, so they cut costs to the bone.

It’s driven TV news to rely increasingly on young, pretty, and presumably inexpensive talent, and to focus on dramatic stories they can tell easily and quickly. Bus crashes, police standoffs, drive-by shootings, train derailments, shackled felons shuffling into jail — these stories create compelling video and generate a dramatic, fast-paced news program.

I live in the 27th largest television market in the United States, which I would think would have a glut of experienced reporters to choose from. But in the last ten years or so, I’ve watched many middle-aged, experienced reporters disappear to be replaced by good-looking youngsters. They can’t possibly have their predecessors’ experience or contacts.

I don’t know whether it’s their thin experience or corporate edict, but their reporting often shuns depth and context in favor of immediacy and drama. A reporter stands live at the scene, even when the story happened eight hours ago and the place is empty and quiet now. She reports what she sees and perhaps what a police spokesman told her. She asks a man on the street for his opinion or gets a teary-eyed victim to emote for the camera, and then tosses back to the anchor. I come away knowing only that the thing happened and someone was upset about it.

And then there are the fear-inducing health and safety stories and the ambush-style “tough questions” that masquerade as investigative journalism. It’s all wrapped in a shiny package of needless, endless swoosh sounds and “Breaking News” banners.

Well, I’m repelled by it all. The 6:00 news used to be appointment television for me. But over the past ten years or so I’ve watched less and less of it. I catch it when I happen to, and when the weather is bad.

I’m not suggesting that local TV news return to 40 years ago with the middle-aged men and the droning. The things I mentioned above are not all inherently a problem. The over-reliance on them is.

So TV news: To win me back, dig deeper into your stories and tell them straight up, without only playing on my emotions. And when a mother cries as her son’s killer is convicted, go ahead and show her tears. Just wrap them in the bigger story that shows those tears’ context.

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