Tuesday, August 30, 2011

Her name is not really Sally

The management at my part-time job has been on a hiring frenzy lately. Between back-to-school shoppers and the upcoming holiday season, they have decided to nearly double the size of the staff. It has been a bit of a challenge to learn everyone’s name. I've started to call everyone by the name Sally.

One thing I have learned after 10+ years in retail – Don’t get too attached to coworkers. They come and go pretty quickly and there’s an awkward breaking-in period. Just when you get used to bonding with the same people, they move on and are replaced by new hires. The new Sallies always ask a lot of questions. I think it’s important that they know where the bathroom is, the rest they can figure out on their own. I’m not a complete jerk, but generally I don’t go out of my way to be nice to Sallies.

These days, a lot of the new employees are over-qualified victims of a bad economy. Some of them will tell you upon your first encounter, “I have a degree in engineering. This is only temporary for me.” Others you can assume by the look of contempt on their face that they are clearly taking a position below their intended path in life.

But then, who isn’t? Everyone is underpaid and it is the rare individual who is fortunate enough to find themselves 100% fulfilled, challenged and compensated. It just doesn’t happen very often. Most of us fall into a sliding scale of acceptance of what we do for a living versus our dream job.

Over the weekend, I worked with three people I had never met before. After working a busy cashwrap with one such person, I was struck by how comfortable she seemed and how effortlessly she interacted with customers. She didn’t have any questions and seemed completely in her element. When we caught a free moment, she formally introduced herself, “I’m Sally, by the way.” This was after we had been working side-by-side for 30 minutes. Most of us sneak a peak at a nametag when we’re learning names, but I appreciated the friendly gesture.

We chatted a bit and I was surprised to find that despite her apparent expertise, she’d only worked there a month. She said she had been working in several different departments within the store that she didn’t like as well. She quickly clarified, “Don’t get me wrong, I’m really happy to have a job in a bookstore. This is a nice place to work; I just enjoy some departments more than others. Well actually... I’m just happy to work. Period. I moved here to live with my mom after I graduated and wasn’t sure if I’d find anything, so this is great. I’m very happy to be here.”

For a moment, I thought maybe she meant that she had just graduated from high school. Not because she looked that young, but because she was so upbeat about working at the bookstore after graduation. There is a different tone that is generally used by recent college grads to convey this information. I am accustomed to the undertone that says, “This is not what I had in mind when I spent years of my life and thousands of dollars on an education.” Her tone did not imply anything at all. Everything she said came across at face value – I’m happy to have a job. Things could be much worse.

Her peculiar optimism led me down a line of questioning that confirmed she had just graduated from college, at a school in the same conference as my Alma mater (Go Big Ten! (except Michigan)!!) Her mother is currently living in the DC Metro area, so she moved in with her mom and has been sending out her resume in DC and got this new job with the recent hiring blitz.

She admitted that her situation was not ideal. She would like to have a job in her field and earn more money. She doesn't want to sleep on an air mattress in her mother's small apartment forever, but for now - she's able to contribute and she's willing to work hard to move up. She'll work hard while she's at the store. Whatever she's doing, she does her best to make herself invaluable. That's the best way to work her way up. And she's happy to have a job, that's the first hurdle.

These are all her assertions, not mine. And she continued on about her situation without an ounce of cynicism. I was stunned. Sure, we all remind ourselves that things could be worse - but that's usually after feeling sorry for ourselves for a while. This girl still had the ambition of a recent college grad - despite taking a less-than-ideal job, despite the air mattress, despite the compromised hourly wage. I was impressed. I told her I knew a few people and would pass her name along for potential entry-level jobs.

And on Monday morning, that's exactly what I did. Now, you should know, I'm not usually any more proactive about job referrals than I am at introducing myself to new coworkers. If your Facebook page is updated constantly throughout your work day with new YouTube videos, I'm not a good person to come to for a reference. I would never suggest someone for a job unless I was confident that they would work out. Yet, Monday morning, there I was sending off multiple emails to anyone who may have entry-level office positions that pay more than what Sally is making now. And I don't even know her.

I sent an email to a friend working for a placement agency and she said she will contact Sally about possible administrative positions, based on my "glowing referral". It was at that point I realized how much I have taken for granted. Can this girl even type? I assume so. She pushed the buttons on the cash registers quite efficiently. It is a safe assumption that anyone with a liberal arts degree has experience in writing and typing papers, using the Microsoft Office suite, and using multiple databases and research materials. But it is still an assumption.

What is it about her that makes me not only wish her well, but actively put forth the effort, despite any knowledge of her qualifications? I only spent an hour with her, some of it while at work and some in the breakroom (we didn't have the entire conversation on the sales floor. Give us some credit!) I was really inspired by her positive attitude and her work ethic. It wasn't just to help her out, but felt like I was helping anyone who is fortunate enough to employ her. Who wouldn't love to have an employee with that kind of attitude and ambition? That's really all I was thinking of when I spread the word about this great potential employee. Clearly I wasn't thinking about any skills or experience, because I don't have a clue what kind of experience she has. Perhaps I should have asked a few more questions before boasting about her.

I wish I could end this story with a happily-ever-after, that one of my friends hired her and now she's worked her way up and is running the company. That would be impressive since it's only been three days. I'll give her a little more time and keep you updated. Whatever happens, I'm sure she'll land on her feet. And I hope she never loses that great attitude. But I'm still not going to get too attached to her. There will be a new Sally next weekend. I'm sure of that.

Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Post-quake pics

The earthquake this afternoon seems very anti-climactic now that I've heard from so many people across the country who learned about it on the news. By the time my coworkers and I figured out what was happening, it was over. The only exception was one coworker who has lived on the west coast who instinctively said, "It's an earthquake! I'm getting under my desk." and she immediately vanished into thin air. That took all of a few moments and the next few hours were spent like this:

The folks who drive to work were unable to leave because no one was able to enter the parking ramp until it was deemed safe. I considered taking the rest of the afternoon off, then I looked around and imagined the same crowd in the Metro station, which is exactly what I would have been met with. So we continued to wait.

Traffic became gridlocked as far as the eye could see and emergency vehicles showed up along the block. Every employee stood outside of their buildings in varying levels of panic. The defining moment of the afternoon happened when one employee took a close look at the emergency vehicles and said, "It's going to be okay, everyone. It's going to be okay. The Printing Police are here!!"

Upon closer examination:

No disrespect, but we do not work for the GPO, nor do we have any association with them. I can't even name all of the different police forces we have in this city, but I'm guessing on the hierarchy of important people, the GPO force doesn't get deployed to the VIP section of town. That's all I'm sayin'.

In the end, most people I know had a similar experience and we are all lucky to be safe and sound with a new story to tell. As I took these photos, a coworker complimented me on "keeping my cool throughout" and wandering around taking photos while the smokers were on their fifth cigarette and the non-smokers were bumming cigarettes from the smokers. I reject this compliment because sometimes I think that it is stupidity that keeps someone cool in a potentially dangerous situation. I blame it on my childhood. I grew up in a house next to the railroad tracks, so shaking buildings do not trigger any panic reflex. But I still always wonder if I would have taped the penny to the tracks, would it really have derailed a train and killed everyone on board like my brother told me? I'm pretty sure he was lying, but that was one I opted to err on the side of caution rather than call his bluff. Plus, you could still buy one Swedish Fish for a penny back in those days so that seemed like a better investment.

I think I'll eat some Swedish Fish right now and start surfing the internet for some earthquake stories more interesting than mine.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

My favorite atheist

Penn Jillette was at Lisner Auditorium this evening to promote his new book, God No!: Signs You May Already Be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales. I am a big fan of his Showtime program, Penn & Teller: Bullshit! and I've always admired the guy for being open-minded and outspoken. These are two qualities that rarely go together, but make for a powerful combination.

Open-minded people (and Jillette is no exception) as a general rule, openly and respectfully accept other peoples' beliefs - even when they are contrary to their own. They welcome the opinions of others and are willing to concede that they are not always right. This quality does not often run hand-in-hand with being opinionated and outspoken. The outspoken people are generally the ones who are absolute and unyielding in their beliefs. In any forum, it always seems to be the extremes on either side of an argument that are given the most attention. America loves the crazies. Unfortunately, the voices of the extremes often drown out the masses, who are generally in the middle. Certainly this is true in politics where the far left and the far right battle it out, while America is forced to choose the candidate that they find least objectionable. I see this drowning-out of moderate voices first-hand living in DC. There are often protests on the National Mall and thousands of people march and hold signs supporting their cause. Yet, the protest signs that make their way onto television are the photos with Hitler mustaches, or anything that seems in any way extreme or offensive. Those are the representations that are shown. Meanwhile, the masses of people who are holding boring signs that say, "Down with [that bad thing I'm here to protest]" do not make their way into the national consciousness. Most of us fall into that middle, boring category. While Penn Jillette is open-minded, he is far from boring. At 6-foot-7 with a commanding voice, he is hard to overlook; which is good because he brings forth an important message.

The book focuses on his atheist beliefs, but for me it is not his atheist beliefs nor his libertarian beliefs that make him an important voice. It is his unique ability to understand perspective.

I have an atheist friend who gets very upset when someone says to him, "God bless you," or "I will pray for you." He gets genuinely pissed off. To him, the other person is projecting their beliefs onto him. They are making an assumption about him and he rejects their prayers. Jillette, on the other hand, understands that the person is speaking from their own beliefs system. He explained his understanding that if someone believes that a saved soul will go on to everlasting life, it would be like watching someone standing in the middle of the railroad tracks. If you saw an oncoming train, you would do everything you could to persuade them to move out of the way. Even if they said, "There is no train coming. I don't believe there is a train. Richard Dawkins says there's no train," you would still do everything you can to save the person from the oncoming collision. He makes this comparison to Christians and proselytizing. They are speaking from their own understanding of the world. Unlike my friend, he sees this for what it is - a caring gesture. Certainly one that he does not appreciate in the way that they would like him to, but the gesture itself he can identify as coming from a place of caring.

One thing that drives me crazy about many atheists (including my friend and also Bill Maher, who is not my friend but I watch his HBO program) is their condescension toward religious people or believers. This is where Penn Jillette is exceptional because although he has strong beliefs, he also allows everyone else to be entitled to their own beliefs. He acknowledges that there is a fine line between having a civilized debate and stating the facts as you understand them, versus trying to manipulate an argument in an effort to win someone over to your side. His approach is to have a civil conversation and exchange ideas, not to disregard everything the other person says and try to bring them over to your side. This is how most debates seem to go, and it is sad. I wholeheartedly embrace Jillette's philosophy. It is the exchange of ideas that bring progress, not reiteration and condescension toward those who do not believe as you do. That form of communication does not solve problems or change anyone's mind, it simply ends in an uncompromising stalemate. [See: United States Congress]

Mr. Jillette seemed to speak off-the-cuff, but when you pay attention, you notice some very carefully-chosen words. A few times when speaking about stating facts or "the truth," he always followed it up with, "as they/I understand it." That is an important distinction that you rarely hear acknowledged. When people speak the truth or state facts to back up an argument, they are facts or truth as they understand them. Everyone understands the world based on their own personal experience. So it is possible for two people to have an argument and both be stating facts as they understand them, or the truth as they know it, but remain in complete conflict and disagreement. It doesn't always mean that one party is wrong and the other is right. We are all individuals, and just because someone's understanding of life does not match your own, it doesn't make their viewpoint any less valid. Just different. All we can do is respect one another's opinion and perhaps enlighten someone by communicating our own understanding; or agree to respectfully disagree. There are many things that Jillette spoke about that he disagreed with but did not condescend or disparage. To some it may have sounded like he was defending them, but it was something far more civilized than defense of another argument. He respectfully disagreed with many things, and that is something I do not hear often enough.

The good news of the evening was that although there will not be a new season of Penn & Teller: Bullshit!, the duo has a new show coming out soon. It will be on the Discovery Channel (or, the Disco Channel as he would like everyone to refer to it, since that is how it appears on his TV menu.)

Thursday, August 11, 2011

A marriage between reality TV and politics

It's past my bedtime but before I go, I have to weigh in on tonight's Republican presidential debate on Fox News. I feel very strongly that these debates need to move to a reality-tv format where one candidate is voted off of the stage every 15 minutes. Given the size of the field, they'll have to be voted off in pairs to begin with, but the only thing that will make these forums tolerable in the future is a political Jeff Probst saying, "The tribe has spoken. It's time for you to go." Or even better, since Trump toyed with the idea of running but opted out, he could still be part of the process by sitting at a table across from the podiums shouting his trademark, "You're fired!" Just to fire the candidates from the debate, of course - not from the campaign trail altogether. I still believe in the electoral process for choosing a candidate. The next day they can go back to campaigning and sucking up to Iowans. There will be plenty of other debates to brush up on their survival skills and come back to the podium again.

In my opinion, the Mormons were the big winners tonight and the Minnesotans came off like bickering siblings. First, the Mormon victories: Mitt Romney and Jon Huntsman both came across very strong. Romney had all the right answers (and often vague ones) on the economy. Jon Huntsman (seen above in WSJ photo between Tim Pawlenty and Newt Gingrich) presented himself as a shrewd businessman and didn't back down on his record, even on his more unpopular opinions.

Then we have the bickering Minnesotans: Governor Tim Pawlenty and Congresswoman Michele Bachmann. These two dominated far too much time by criticizing each other's records, defending themselves by criticizing the other person in turn, and then going back and forth, much to the chagrin of Rick Santorum - who never missed a chance to point out how little screen time he was getting. I say to all three of you - you're not going to win the nomination. The tribe has spoken. Goodbye. You're fired. Whatever other reality catchphrase applies here that means "go away." Do that.

Newt Gingrich had a bit of screen time tonight. His standard answer to any given question sounded the same (this is not verbatim, but pretty close): When I was Speaker of the House, Ronald Reagan, Ronald Reagan, I'm very smart, Ronald Reagan, shut up about my disastrous campaign, and quit staring at my oddly-shapen head. (This last part was implied, but I found it to be very astute, as I was in fact staring at said head.)

In all seriousness, my true inspiration to write about the debate is Jon Huntsman reiterating his support for civil unions. I am neither Republican nor Democrat and I have equal contempt for both parties. But Huntsman's defense of civil unions inspires me. I have a hard time watching presidential debates because I tire of hearing constant pandering, but this was the opposite of pandering. Anyone who is running for the Republican nomination knows one of the essential catchphrases is, "Marriage is between a man and a woman." It is right up there with, "Life begins at conception." It is a standard survival technique in the early stages of any campaign, but Hunstman strayed from the script and stuck to his guns. He defended his position by saying, "I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to equality. I think this nation can do a better job when it comes to reciprocal beneficiary rights. I believe this is something that should be discussed among the various states... as for me, I support civil unions."

You are correct, Mr. Huntsman. This country can do a better job when it comes to equality. Not only that, but this country can do a much better job of staying focused on things like our financial crisis and our men and women in uniform who are repeatedly deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan and too many of them coming home broken. Those are the things we should be talking about, in presidential debates and in congress. I've heard enough about the hot-button issues.

The only thing that would inspire me more than hearing John Hunstman stick to his principles on civil unions, is if Republican voters will see past this and not use it as a sudden-elimination round because he has gone off script. I for one would like to hear more of what Mr. Hunstman has to say. Judging by the amount of post-debate analysis Fox News focused on candidate Huntsman (zero!) I would say he has an uphill battle ahead of him. It is a shame if his voice is stifled after this debate. As an independent voter in the general election, I would like to hear more of what Mr. Huntsman has to say. Of course, he'll have to make it past his own party's primaries first before he ever has a chance in a general election. After the voters held their noses last year and voted for John McCain, I have a feeling the Republican candidate is going to tow the party line pretty heavily this year. I hope I'm wrong because it would be a shame. I can't be the only person voting in the general election who is in favor of civilized debate and rational ideas. Then again, there really is no room for that sort of thing in politics, is there?

Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Seventy is the new thirty

First, a confession: I am a complete jerk. I forgot my dad's birthday. It's not the first time, either. Every year August comes around before I know it and sometime between one to ten days after his birthday, I suddenly remember. This year was no exception.

I remembered the day after his birthday and tried a few times to call him in the afternoon. He didn't answer his home phone. I wondered if I could get away with telling him I had been trying to call since yesterday. It's tempting, but I'll stick with being the worst daughter ever and not top it off with being a liar. I tried his cell phone in the afternoon.

He picks it up and it sounds like he's driving, but I can't make out anything he is saying. It sounds like electronic noise.
Hello? Dad?
Dad? Can you hear me?
Zzz. ZzzzzZZZ Zzzz ZZ?
Hello? Uh yeah, I can't hear a thing. I will call you back later today.
Okay. Call you back in twenty minutes?
Got it.

Definite technical difficulties.

A couple of months ago I called my dad from a busy airport to follow up on an email he hadn't responded to. When I asked him about it, he said, "Oh. I responded but it must not have gone through. I was on my iPhone."

Wait, what? Did he just say iPhone? No way. Surely the background noise drowned him out. He must have said, I.. was on MY Phone. Or even more plausible, he was using a dial-up connection for the internet but the phone rang when a telemarketer called and the email remained unsent. That sounds like a much more reasonable explanation. My septuagenarian father using an iPhone.... one that he owns... to send me an email? That is highly improbable.

I'm sorry, I didn't hear you correctly Dad... did you say I - Phone? Do you mean to say Jitterbug? Eye... phone?

"Yeah, your uncle talked me into getting an iPhone. I can't figure out how to use it most of the time."

Here, the story becomes more plausible. My father being talked into an iPhone purchase by his younger and gadget-loving brother, and then not having any idea which side to speak into... I could see that. Still, I'm skeptical. I saw him a few months ago and his cellphone looked like this:

And before that, like this.

Needless to say, the jump to an iPhone was a bit of a surprise. I have to admit, I was impressed. Even though I couldn't hear a word he was saying when I attempted my annual birthday apology call, I was impressed with the old hipster. I called back 20 minutes later and the reception was perfectly clear.

"Sorry dad, I couldn't hear a word you were saying."

"That's okay. I was on the Bluetooth."

Wait, what? Clearly my father is referring to something that requires dental work because never would I picture him driving around with a bluetooth in his ear. Who is this man? Where is the Nokia-toting technophobe I knew only a few short months ago? I am baffled. Somehow I have entered an alternate universe.

At any rate, I missed my dad's birthday and I'm still a jerk. I was unsuccessful at convincing him to change his birthdate to something easier to remember. I gave him a litany of excuses why I didn't call him on his birthday: I was working; I didn't realize it was August already; the dog ate my calendar; I don't have a fancy iPhone to do everything for me and my pen ran out of ink... He seemed fine with it, but I'm still a jerk and will remain a jerk for another 363 days when I have a chance to redeem myself again.

Later that evening I called my mother. They have been divorced for years, but they amicably coexist. I told her about my dad's new iPhone.

"Is that what you have?"
"No, I have a Droid. Dad's is automatically more hip because it's made by Apple."
She suddenly and excitedly changes the subject:
"Hey! Did I tell you?!? I bought a Magic Jack!! Have you seen those on TV? You hook it up to your computer and save a ton of money on your phone bill. Your aunt is coming over today to hook mine up for me!"

And a calm suddenly comes over me as balance is finally restored to the universe. These are the parents I know and love.

Monday, August 1, 2011

White Girl Anthem

I have recently developed a solid theory, and like all good theories – it involves 80s rock band Def Leppard. Specifically, their song Pour Some Sugar on Me. Last night I took a trip to Jiffy Lube Live to do some research and I can say, without question, Pour Some Sugar on Me is the unofficial anthem of the white female.

I’m sure many women immediately take umbrage to this claim and there are plenty of counter-arguments for more empowering songs. Aretha Franklin’s Respect, for example. Depending on your generation, you may choose Destiny Child’s Independent Women, or Helen Reddy’s I am woman. These are all fine arguments, but they do not apply here. I am not talking about an anthem we choose to represent ourselves. I am speaking of that irresistible urge that awakens in us before the music even begins.

Step inside, walk this way. You and me babe, hey hey!

It is like a hypnotic invitation that renders us powerless to sit still. The first few guitar riffs are like a dog whistle, capturing the attention of every white girl within earshot.

Love is like a bomb baby c'mon get it on
Livin' like a lover with a radar phone
Lookin' like a tramp like a video vamp
Demolition woman can I be your man
Razzle 'n' dazzle 'n' flash a little light
Television lover baby go all night
Sometime anytime sugar me sweet
Little miss innocent sugar me yeah yeah

By now, we’re moving our hips in circles like there’s a tiny hula hoop around our midriff. Again, we can’t help it. It’s spontaneous. Then comes the chorus:

C'mon - take a bottle, shake it up

Break the bubble, break it up

Now we’ve got the shoulders moving, arms are getting warmed up. Then, things start to get crazy.

Pour some sugar on me
Ooh, in the name of love
Pour some sugar on me
C'mon fire me up
Pour some sugar on me
Oh! I can't get enough

From the first Pour, the arms are straight up in the air and the pelvic thrusting rivals Elvis Presley. Lady lumps are swiveling and swaying every which way by now. Hips are out of control and showing off their inherent femininity.

I'm hot, sticky, sweet
From my head to my feet yeah

Okay, now you can’t get to this part without touching yourself in some way. Depending on how flexible (or just plain promiscuous) you are, you may have bent your knees and wiggled your way down to the floor so that your head is now where your waist used to be. Hands are automatically running up and down, hair is being tossed about… don’t even try to fight it. Shake out your hair like you're in a rock video.

Listen! Red light yellow light green light go!
Crazy little woman in a one man show
Mirror queen mannequin rhythm of love
Sweet dreams saccharine loosen up

You gotta please a little, squeeze a little
Tease a little more
Easy operator come a knockin' on my door
Little miss innocent sugar me yeah
Give a little more

At this point there seems to be a variation in the routine, depending on the individual. Some girls get even more into it; some take a breather and go back to more subtle wiggling. If you’re over thirty like me, you may be checking to make sure you didn’t pull any muscles before you continue on to the big finish. And here it comes…

Take a bottle, shake it up
Break the bubble, break it up

Pour some sugar on me
Ooh, in the name of love
Pour some sugar on me
C'mon fire me up
Pour some sugar on me
Oh! I can't get enough

I'm hot, sticky, sweet
From my head to my feet yeah

By now, you feel like the sexiest woman in the world and just to reinforce that, the fine lads of Def Leppard validate us completely.

You got peaches I got the cream
Sweet to taste saccharine
'Cos I'm hot, say what, sticky sweet
From my head, my head, to my feet

There is something about this song that makes the most inhibited of women feel sexy. It is maybe a little empowering to know that even little miss innocent can bring a man to his knees. I will grant you that my theory may be influenced by the fact that I was a pubescent teenager when I was first introduced to the magical music and perhaps it has skewed my entire world view to associate the song with raging hormones. But I don’t think so. And I’ll tell you why.

I witnessed this phenomenon myself at the Def Leppard concert last night. As soon as the music began, women in the audience were on their feet. The cameras panned through the crowd and every woman was doing same thing. They were shimmying their way through the very same dance that I was rocking out in the cheap seats. I don’t think we can help ourselves. I don’t find this song to be very danceable, but it’s an impulse to throw my hips around like I’m about to hurt someone with them. Sure it’s a catchy tune, but no matter how vast your dance repertoire, there’s only so much you can do with this song. Yet, we can’t resist but to react, and further the stereotype that white girls can not dance. The only thing worse for that stereotype is AC/DC’s You Shook Me All Night Long – which is completely awkward to dance to and irresistible to many of my ilk.

So thank you, Def Leppard, for imposing this irresistible anthem. Thank you for once again coming to the DC area and reminding me of the careless days of my youth. Thank you to lead singer Joe Elliott for spending last night entertaining the masses, despite it having been only three weeks since your dear father passed away. Thank you Rick Allen for drumming with your feet and not letting a small thing like an amputation slow down your career as a rock star. And thank you Phil Collen for still having a smoking hot body at the age of 54. There are many things about the 1980s that we have to question in retrospect – Why did we dress like that? What’s with the bangs, and why did they have to be so tall? What the hell were we thinking?

There are many popular trends from the 80s that we will never fully understand their popularity. Def Leppard is not one of those things. They still put on a hell of a show in 2011, and they are responsible for an irresistible white girl anthem. Or at least I think so. It is just a theory.